By Hilary Scott. @nosylocaljourno
Twenty years ago, in 1997, I interviewed the relatively unknown Tony Blair as he was campaigning in Northampton. It was just before the Labour landslide in May, and there were throngs of people following him and Cherie as they swept around the Grosvenor Centre. Blair was about to overturn years of Tory rule, Blur and Oasis were hitting the tabloids and the Spice Girls and the Teletubbies were everywhere. There was a sense of palpable optimism in the air. In the words of D-Ream, things could only get better.
And that’s the timeframe for the witty and observant play Education, Education, Education, playing until Saturday at Royal & Derngate.
I wouldn’t usually say this so early in a review, but go and see it. Really. It’s the best £16 you’ll spend this week.
After shows at this year’s Edinburgh Festival received rave reviews, young Bristol-based theatre company The Wardrobe Ensemble are touring the play to select theatres, including Northampton, where co-director and writer Jessie Jones has just completed a residency.
The action is based in a failing secondary school the day after the Labour landslide, and the over-worked teachers suddenly have something to look forward to: a government which has promised to properly fund education and value their profession.
All the parts are played by the seven-strong cast, and we watch the breathlessly-paced story from the standpoint of Tobias (James Newton), a German teaching assistant on placement in an England where the word Brexit hasn’t even been invented yet.
Newton’s deadpan delivery and impeccable timing is just the right side of Kraftwerk. The teachers are manic by comparison, with Kerry Lovell channelling the ambitious, discipline-obsessed deputy head Louise to perfection, complete with tightly choreographed, slow-mo, mock executions of all around her. Like a 90s shoot-em-up video game character, she takes no prisoners. First on her kill-list is drippy but well-meaning English teacher Miss Belltop-Doyle (Jessie Meadows) who, in more modern parlance, goes on a journey.
Emily Greenslade plays, er, Emily Greenslade, the angry and disruptive teen whose actions spark consequences. All the cast play the pupils (with their real names too), and the fast backstage changes and frenetic on-stage action, including sliding doors and moving tables, would knacker the fittest of actors. They barely broke sweat and hit every mark.
This is not a clichéd farce, or a blatant nostalgia-fest. It’s a sharp and funny look at 20 years of massive social change that none of us old enough to remember could possible predict. The ensemble, and many of the audience members, were probably not even old enough to be at secondary school in the 90s, But everyone in that theatre was roaring with laughter; silent with our own recognition of remembered circumstance; fully focussed on that stage (well, apart from those who were relying on the subtitled screen, which had a technical error half-way through).
There’s a lively double act of childish bullying between lonely PE teacher Tim (Ben Vardy) and laddish Paul (Greg Shewring), who provokes pupil Emily into taking matters into her own hands when denied a place on a school trip.
The chaos is overseen by kindly but out-of-his-depth head Hugh (Tom England), who sees the good in everyone but not the ensuing doom of a system about to be businessified into a mess of results-driven curriculums and children as statistics.
Every teacher should see this – for that matter, anyone who has been through education (so all of us then). It’s funny and fast and poignant – you’ll recognise the very first chime of that confiscated Tamagotchi.
I was five months pregnant with my first child when I met Blair in the Grosvenor Centre, campaigning for Education, education, education on the early waves of Cool Britannia.
My eldest, growing up knowing only a Blair/Brown/Cameron government, has just gone off to university, costing £9,250 a year (plus the same in student maintenance loan). He, and his three siblings, were to experience their earliest education at schools that had millions of pounds poured into them only to become academies, mostly sold off to private businesses. Education still needs money, and as this hugely entertaining but profound production blasts out, things can only get better. . .can’t they?
Education, Education, Education is on at Royal & Derngate, Northampton, until Saturday October 14. Call the box office on 01604 624811 or visit royalandderngate.co.uk