Daniel Rusteau
The Upsetters
Soho Theatre upstairs

Georgia-Mae Myers as Ashley Credit: Henri T
Jonathan McGuinness as Jonathan, Corey Montague-Sholay as Dennis, and Georgia-Mae Myers as Ashley Credit: Henri T
Rebecca Crankshaw as headteacher Susan Credit: Henri T

Given the thousands of knife crimes each year in the UK, it is understandable that pupils are banned from carrying knives in school. If they are caught with a knife, it is confiscated and the student is reported to management.

This poses a dilemma for the sociology teacher Ashley (Georgia-Mae Myers) when a knife falls out of the black teenager Tyler’s bag in her classroom. She has no problem removing the object but is uneasy about reporting the incident.

It’s not just that she prefers nurturing students away from dangerous behaviour rather than using punishment; it's that any report will have severe consequences for a student she feels has a potentially bright future despite a difficult background. On the other hand, others know about the knife, so if she doesn’t report the event, she will be in trouble.

It leads to awkward discussions with other staff such as Dennis (Corey Montague-Sholay), who tries to be realistic about the limits of what you can do in school, and Jonathan (Jonathan McGuinness), who quietly sympathises but prefers a more indirect approach to the headteacher, who regards him as a friend.

Ashley’s more difficult arguments take place with the headteacher Susan (Rebecca Crankshaw), who has been at the school for some twenty-four years, in which time there have been many stabbings and even a number of deaths. She also points out that being headteacher, if she doesn’t punish Tyler and he later stabs someone, then she will be in trouble.

We never see Tyler, but the play’s sympathies tilt towards his situation and the central character of Ashley without losing sight of the reasons why others in the school are resisting her arguments.

This is a thoughtful, well-performed seventy-five-minute show with engaging dialogue and an eye for humour. When Dennis catches Ashley marking students' work as staff are off for an end-of-day drink, he gets a big laugh from the audience by telling her to “save your marking for the weekend. That’s what they are for.”

There are over 40,000 knife crimes in England and Wales, primarily by men, with 25% of the victims being black. Although exclusion is a common consequence of being caught in school with a knife, even Ofsted has questioned how children can be safeguarded if they are excluded. It’s a view shared by a House of Commons Select Committee, which also pointed out that inequality and poverty were “major drivers of knife crime.” Until these are dealt, with as Daniel Rusteau’s play illustrates, whole communities will continue to be traumatised by knife crime.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna

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