sat 15/06/2024

Education, Education, Education, Trafalgar Studios review - politics and pupils, mayhem and music | reviews, news & interviews

Education, Education, Education, Trafalgar Studios review - politics and pupils, mayhem and music

Education, Education, Education, Trafalgar Studios review - politics and pupils, mayhem and music

The future of education seen from 1997 and 2019

The cast (from left to right): James Newton, Tom Brennan, Jesse Meadows, Tom England, Hanora Kame and Ben VardyPhoto © Bill Knight

It's the 2nd May 1997, the morning after the night that swept New Labour into power. We’re in the staffroom of a school somewhere in Britain and the teachers are jubilant. They've been glued to their TV sets for the results and have shagged and drunk through the night to crawl in with hangovers and pouchy eyes to face the day with a particular brand of frazzled optimism.

But they're also anxious, because — according to the relentless logic of musical theatre which permits only extremes — today is the worst day to be a teacher. Today, of course, is muck up day.

Between the ordinary mayhem of finding cover for lessons and the extraordinary mayhem of pupils doing the Macarena en masse, the chief question is whether problem student Emily (played by Emily Greenslade) will get to go on the school trip to York. She handed in her slip first, made the deposit and, having kept to her promise to behave all week, wants to see the university. But she has also (among other previous misdemeanours) set another student's hair on fire and lobbed expletives at her tutor. Her fate and, it seems, her future, hang in the balance.

The repercussions will be felt widely, and here to guide us through the choppy waters of the drowning teachers and foundering pupils is Tobias (played by James Newton), the drily humorous, newly-arrived German assistant. He's a fan of Britpop and British cuisine (namely, Cheesestrings), but that doesn't stop him seeing the dark side of Britain. 

Photo © Bill KnightHis tour round the school takes in the temporary Portakabin classrooms (fixtures for 20 years) to the escapist sounds of the 90s: The Prodigy, Oasis, Blur, M People, Corona and — whisper it — Celine Dion. The cast of teachers switch in and out as students (there’s not so much difference between them anyway) and manoeuvre two doors on castors and tables and chairs to create spaces that are variously spatial, psychological and emotional. Lighting and sound assist in this as much as characterful choreography and cinematic staging.

Pupils struggle to both live in the present and live up to expectations. Likewise, the teachers can be slotted into old and new guard. Future headteacher Louise (played by Hanora Kamen) for example, takes umbrage at headteacher Hugh’s patrician humanism (played by Tom England) as much as Sue’s well-meaning but overly-exuberant lessons (played by Jesse Meadows). The new government hails new money for schools, but that doesn’t make the politics less petty or personal.

Amid the song and dance, PE teacher Tim (played by Ben Vardy) attempts to keep a confiscated Tamagotchi alive, a feat of Sisyphean sympathy. As an absurd conceit, it's a poignant touch that's true to life — which doesn’t quite cancel out the fact that none of the staff or pupils smoke (deeply unrealistic). This particular gripe aside, this musical is an enlivening, entertaining and irreverent night. With humour and heart it asks — of then and now — whether things really can only ever “get better”.

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