Everyone remembers the answer Education, Education, Education, but can you remember what the question was? Actually, I don’t think there was a question. It was Tony Blair’s description of his priorities when taking over as Prime Minister in 1997. Ah, those halcyon days. A time for celebration, for romance; indeed, a time for Tamagotchis, remember them? Everyone has their own memory of the 1997 General Election (if you were old enough to stay up late, that is.) We stayed up for Portillo was a phrase bandied around the watercooler (it was too long ago for social media) – as indeed did Mrs Chrisparkle and I. I can’t quite remember if we celebrated Stephen Twigg’s victory in the same way that teachers Louise and Paul did, but I bet there were a few Twigglets born the following February.
It is altogether nostalgic, and charming, to remember the hope of those days. There was a spring in our step and a glint in our eye. Cool Britannia was all the rage – were you Blur or Oasis? – Geri sizzled in her Union Jack dress, and Katrina won Eurovision for the UK to round off a fantastic weekend. (We’ve only won Eurovision once under the Tories, four times under Labour… #justsaying). Blair was going to make all the nasty things go away and bring in only nice things. One of those was spending a whole lot more money on education (education, education).
So it’s appropriate for this devised play to be set in a fairly progressive school back in 1997; with a range of teachers (from the idealistic to the realistic) and students (from the compliant to the complainant, in this case Emily Greenslade, played by Emily Greenslade). Yes, that’s not a typo. In fact, all the students at the school have the same names as the cast; if that doesn’t show how much they identify with the story they’re telling, I don’t know what does. But the students (apart from Emily) take a back seat as this play primarily explores the relationships between the teachers.
You’ve got polar opposites of approach to teaching between the two female teachers, Louise (Head of Discipline) at whose feet everyone cowers and disperses, and Sue (Head of nothing at all) who promotes fun over study in her English lessons. Headmaster Hugh sees his job as motivating his students through treating them as equals and heaping praise wherever possible; whereas teacher Paul is matter of fact and morose, probably doing the bare minimum to get by. Sports teacher Tim is relaxed and amenable, happy to stand in for the French teacher, même though il ne peut pas hardly speak a word of it.
And then we have the new teacher, Tobias, from Germany; thoughtful, introverted, not exactly taciturn but definitely reserved. He might seem unemotional, but he’s genuinely hurt by Emily’s insult; he just has a quiet and balanced way of expressing it. An outsider, Tobias acts as our narrator; introducing the school and its people, commenting on the action from the sidelines, breaking the fourth wall with his interactions with Fergus the tech. If I was being pretentious, I’d describe Tobias as the still point in the turning world, as T. S. Eliot would have it. However, pretentious is the last thing I am, so I’ll keep that thought to myself. Tobias’ narration leaves us in no doubt that Blair’s fantasy world of educational quality through more money was only ever going to be a pipedream. It started well, but look at us today….
The show is directed by Helena Middleton and Jesse Jones, whose superb production of Market Boy for the Royal and Derngate’s Actors Company was the talk of the town (Northampton town) last summer. The structure of the show is madcap, manic and surreal; over the course of 75 minutes so much content gets chucked at the audience that you can hardly pause for breath (unless we’re having a Tobias moment.) It’s beautifully character-driven and characterised, showing how the misfortunes of Emily and Sue clash on one terrible day, with one causing the downfall (literally) of the other. It’s also very funny and very quirky, with tremendous use of popular music as well as other fantasy sound effects. With inventive use of precious little scenery or props they work on our imagination to successfully recreate all parts of the school, indoors and out.
Tom England’s hipster Hugh is a delight, with his amazing dad-dancing and championing the unexpected; he’s like a cross between Tom Hardy and David Brent. Jesse Meadows’ Sue blends the strength of idealism with fear of confrontation to produce a well-meaning but ineffectual teacher who’s pushed to risk her own safety for the benefit of others. Emily Greenslade’s Emily is a smart cookie who rails against injustice and fights battles she can’t win to her own detriment. Greg Shewring’s Paul is dour and dismal, in the way that many of my teachers were – did he go to my school, I wonder? Kerry Lovell’s Louise is a terrifying stickler for tradition, demanding absolute obedience, delivering education (education, education) by the book. Ben Vardy’s Tim is your typical nice bloke with one solution for every problem – pub? James Newton’s Tobias is a hilarious study of a jumble of Teutonic attributes but which strangely never comes across as a stereotype but just as an intelligent, logical, practical chap; in the guise of a comedy German.
This was a big hit at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe and I can imagine exactly how well it would have fitted in there. An intriguing co-production between the Wardrobe Ensemble, Shoreditch Town Hall and the Royal and Derngate, I hope their paths may cross again to produce future exciting work. Its tour continues to Eastleigh and the Bristol Old Vic in October and November and I’d thoroughly recommend it!
Production photos by Richard Lakos