The Melbourne Theatre Company boasts, quite rightly, it now has three home-grown writers on its stages: Joanna Murray-Smith’s The Gift, Ian Wilding’s premiere new work The Water Carriers (opening tomorrow) and this wise-arse new play from Robert Reid, The Joy Of Text. Add two contributions at the Malthouse Theatre down the road — Lally Katz’s sumptuous The Golem Story and a re-mount of Declan Greene’s breathtaking Moth — and local main stage theatre would appear in rude health.

Reid himself — a playwright, director, reviewer and academic — may be surprised to have been invited to the block party. He told The Age recently he’s probably written at least a hundred plays, and this is the first of them to be staged by MTC. It’s well worth the wait.

The Joy Of Text is ripped from headlines of literary hoaxes and school s-x scandals and deconstructed into a perceptive parable on formal and informal life education. Reid’s rapid-fire script has a sharp tongue and warm heart. Most joyously, this is a play that isn’t afraid to be smart. There are long monologues on educational practice; fierce debates around everything from etymology to punctuation. The banter alone is hypnotic, as if Aaron Sorkin wrote a classroom drama. Reid is wrestling with provocative questions, testing the boundaries in teaching and relationships.

Danny (James Bell, who walks the finest line between pubescent brat and charismatic young adult) is too smart for his own good. A heady teenage mix of boredom, isolation and rampant curiosity drives him to challenge his teachers and his outlook. Hard-nosed head of English Diane (Louise Siversen) wants to introduce a provocative novel on a questionably fictional student/teacher relationship into the syllabus, pitting her against younger literature teacher Ami (Helen Christinson) who feels an uncomfortable resonance with the book. Hapless aspiring principal Steve (Peter Houghton) mediates. Danny devours the novel and begins deconstructing and reconstructing the text, with devastating consequences.

Director Aidan Fennessy’s production is acutely realised. Andrew Bailey’s modular set — classrooms and offices deconstructed (there’s that word again) and stacked on top of each other, barely squeezing into the Fairfax Studio space — allows seamless movement to keep pace with Reid’s dialogue. (The authenticity of some set items — the standard-issue wooden banister, for example — is an instant time warp). Compositions from David Franzke and evocative sound design — the buzz of school corridors, the rhythmic sprinklers outside — deserve special attention. And Matt Smith’s lighting adds real feeling in the final scenes.

It is indeed a joy, Reid’s Text. More fun and certainly more stimulating than any class I ever went to.

The details: The Joy Of Text plays the Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre until July 23. Tickets on the company website.

Peter Fray

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