Burning Up by Rebecca Lenkiewicz

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BBC Radio 4, 5 December 2011
Set in the aftermath of the riots earlier this year, Breaking Up tells the story of Maisie (Danielle Vitalis), a fifteen-year-old who has spent four months in detention, and uses the time to reflect on her past, present and future.
Although a fairly bright person, who more than holds her own at school, Maisie looks for self-belief in an urban world that tries to categorize her as a "immature," or "a rebellious teenager," or "someone in need of reform." When she was twelve years old, she went on a school trip to Dartmoor; the entire experience offered her the kind of freedom - both emotional and physical - that her ordinary life in east London could not provide. However this was a transitory experience; her life soon became constrictive again. Now she has just turned fifteen, Maisie thinks she has found the solution when she meets Scott (Richie Campbell), the love of her life; but Scott lacks the emotional equipment to deal with his own problems, let alone hers. Maisie goes out on the night of the London riots, and briefly thinks she has found the key to freedom, as she joins a group of teenagers in looting shops in Clapton. However that freedom proves illusory; as she looks around her, and witnesses other people - including mothers - raiding the shops, she realizes that she is once again an emotional prisoner.
Maisie's incarceration in the Secure Children's Centre represents both a physical and an emotional imprisonment. Although promising the whey-faced officer Mrs. Moon (Adjoa Andoh) that she has "learned her lesson," we understand that little has changed. She emerges from the prison in her summer clothes, on a freezing winter's day, and is driven home by her father (Danny Sapani), a God-fearing man who berates her for what she has done. Maisie looks at the changing landscapes around her as she travels homewards: the rural landscape surrounding the centre soon changes into the suburban sprawl of outer London, followed by the grimy streets and tower blocks of the inner city. She reflects on those - for example, a buddhist monk who set himself on fire - who are prepared to die for their convictions, and wonders whether she could ever emulate them.
The title Burning Up is deliberately ambiguous - not only referring to the buildings set on fire during the riots, but to Maisie's state of mind. She is "burning up" inside: on some occasions she wants to be "invisible" (i.e. for no one to notice that she is there), on other occasions she dreams of emulating the buddhist's example. However there seems to be little or no opportunity to pursue either option in an inner city world where teenagers are expected to conform to certain behavioural codes (for example, losing their virginity as soon as possible, or "doing it" in every possible location to prove how "experienced" they are).
Delivered as a monologue, interspersed with sporadic exchanges of dialogue, Burning Up offered a graphic expose of a young girl's mental agonies as she tried and failed to cope with inner city life. This was no Rebel Without a Cause melodrama about "a crazy mixed-up kid"; on the contrast, dramatist Rebecca Lenkiewicz asked us not to make any judgments, but rather try to understand what Maisie was thinking at different points in her life. Danielle Vitalis was simply magnificent in the central role; her breathy style of delivery alternating between self-confidence and crushing self-doubt. The supporting cast was equally memorable: I particularly liked Campbell's Scott, a basically decent young person who had the courage to confess his emotional inadequacies.
The director of this Afternoon Play was Sasha Yevtushenko.