Mogadishu, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

How do you solve a problem like Jason? It is a question no doubt occupying the mind of Education Secretary Michael Gove at this very moment.

Vivienne Franzmann, creator of Mogadishu, a winner of the 2008 Bruntwood Playwriting Award and a teacher of 12 years' experience, does not offer any answers in her searing drama about life in an inner-city school – but she shows that doing the right thing is far from easy.

The Jason in question is Jason Chambers, a young, powerfully built black teenager and former hamster-torturer played with brooding menace by Malachi Kirby who rules his raggle-taggle gang of spliff-toking, wise-cracking classmates through a formidable combination of brute force and sexual allure.

No one really knows how to sort Jason out. Not his right-on, middle-class teacher Amanda, played with admirable pinot grigio-soaked desperation by Julia Ford, who thinks he needs to be understood. Her reluctance to report Jason's playground attack on her and his ensuing false allegation of racial abuse provides the backdrop against which the varying failed responses to Jason's unresolved anger and behaviour issues unfold. Similarly incapable is the boy's autocratic father, superbly played by Fraser James. He fumes with the impotent rage familiar to so many parents in a heartbreaking portrayal of a father doing the best he can – no matter how badly.

Meanwhile Ian Bartholomew's well-meaning but ground-down headteacher Chris has all the right instincts but none of the right actions and is unable to stop the child-protection professionals from moving in.

In the end it falls to Amanda's strange and feisty daughter Becky to offer some kind of resolution – albeit an unwanted one. Although Shannon Tarbet's young, articulate goth is a cultural universe way from Jason and his crew, the two share a past with a tragic symmetry and she brilliantly holds a mirror to his real and present pain. Franzmann's teenage characters are acutely observed and engagingly executed by the young actors. At times uproariously funny, their slouching mannerisms and aggressive street argot cannot disguise their aching vulnerability.

To 19 February (0161 833 9833); Lyric Hammersmith, London W6 (0871 2211 729) 3 March to 2 April