Education, Education, Education - its title inspired by the Tony Blair line, in a promise for better funding and support for public schools - presents an eerie picture of hope for a new decade, a new government, and a changing world, set on a backdrop of wonderfully paced comedic moments and stunning production choices.
Stood in the foyer of Stage One on the opening night of Education, Education, Education (directed by Eden Vaughan), the excitement was palpable. The room was packed with people embracing, chatting, and laughing - it felt like being among old friends, something mirrored in the production itself.
As the lights drew on the set, in typical school fashion, a video is projected onto a whiteboard. A short documentary plays, reminding us of the excitement that came with the 1997 election of Blair’s labour government: winning Eurovision, New Labour, Princess Di’s iconic black dress, the promise of the Euro, Spice Girls. Politics interweaved with pop-culture moments - when Britain seemed truly exciting.
And yet the play itself manages these issues tactfully and approaches them with humour, allowing the audience to ease into the emotions of the play without leaving them feeling overly pessimistic or saddened. The cast was a real force of nature, with each and every character having a real moment to shine and demonstrate their comic abilities. Whilst the cast took turns in playing students at the school, the main focus of the play was the staff, and their contrasting approaches to teaching and handling the trickier situations.
The 90s mood is captured so effortlessly and places the audience in the socio-historical context. This sense of anticipation and excitement is mirrored by the newly arrived German assistant, Tobias (Alex Dybell). Like the audience, who must feel slightly removed from the time period of the play, Tobias is also a voyeur and fittingly acts as the play’s narrator, breaking the fourth wall on occasion. Tobias’ passion for Take That and excitement about living in the UK is endearing; and Dybell’s comic timing is impressive, particularly as he is the one who shares the closest relationship with the audience. The play itself deals with some darker themes, such as suicide, troubled children and struggling teachers, unable to prioritise emotions or education.
There was a natural divide between self-proclaimed ‘Head of Discipline’ Louise (Eliza Christy) and disillusioned teacher Paul (Tom Grice), with their more positive, easygoing counterparts, headteacher Hugh (James Barr) and kind, yet unassertive Sue (Siobhan Ward). Many of the characters switch roles from student to teacher, allowing each actor to display a variety of abilities. I particularly enjoyed the contrast between Tom Grice’s tough, quick-to-anger teacher, and his very nervous, Tamagotchi-clutching student.
Barr brought incredible energy to the stage as he pranced around as Headteacher, giving Tobias an animated tour of the school as if it were Buckingham Palace, which served as a stark contrast with Grice’s deadpan delivery as teacher Paul, who appears to find his work tiresome. Similarly, Christy is excellent as Louise, storming around the stage, chasing students with her discipline ‘gun-fingers’ and criticising Sue’s liberal approach to teaching (Ward). Ward encapsulated that teacher who was so lovely, but so easily distracted and manipulated by her classes (and who’d definitely been inspired by a Montessori “teach-through-play” approach). The portrayals of the various teachers felt familiar, anyone could think of comparisons for each one of them from their own experiences at school.
In spite of the play’s tragic themes of hopelessness, one of its greatest strengths was the humour present throughout. Without the lighter moments, the audience could have been left with a strong sense of pessimism, whereas the humour allows them to enjoy the vitality and excitement of the period. The cast excels in their comic humour, with definite highlights being an astonishing sex scene between teachers that simply has to be seen to be believed, and an all-too-relatable rendition of that one PE teacher covering a French lesson with zero language expertise (and perhaps Angus Bell’s performance throughout!)
A key winner in the play is the production team. Aiding the actors in their impressively on-point portrayals of secondary school teachers, is a backdrop that reflects the look and feel of a late 90’s school, as well as a variety of heights utilised to emphasise the crescendo of the story. The music choices present a strong array of late 90s music, and the use of smoke, lighting, costumes and props gives the play another level of depth and aids in what appears to be a very creatively challenging script. Despite one moment at the start that was beautifully improvised through by Dybell, the production crew shone in this telling of Education, Education, Education. Upon reading the program, the audience finds out that names written on detention lists in the set, or those used in passing by the teachers were the names of the production team, a real blink-and-you’ll-miss-it addition that gives the production a personal touch.
As the plot develops it becomes clear the story is slowly centring around the student of Scarlett, an intelligent but wild student, played by Scarlett Allen. It is this ingredient that allows the play to truly flourish, on the backdrop of a number of pessimistic or overly optimistic teachers, it is easy to forget the students are the ones who will be affected. Her performance was easy to empathise with, her evolving relationship with Dybell natural and genuine.
There are few things to complain about. The play felt a perfect pace, it was both touching and genuinely amusing, with all of the actors playing into their roles with grace. Bar some minor issues with actors' voices failing to cut through the music, I have no criticisms.
The play is neatly concluded with the recurring appearance of the whiteboard, once again displaying contrasting clips between the past and the present, although this time we are reminded that the Blair optimism did not last for long. The tying of this 90s school to our current global climate felt poignant, delicately placed so as to not feel overbearing, with the perfect amount of weight so that one leaves the theatre with hope for the world, not despair.
Words: Hannah Giraudeau and Oliver Mackenzie
Image credit: Abby Swain