Education, Education, Education

Devised by The Wardrobe Ensemble
The Wardrobe Ensemble
The Lowry (Quays Theatre)

Education, education, education

It is the morning of 2 May 1997. On a turn out of 71%, the Labour Party has finally returned to power with a massive majority. Tony Blair is our new, young Prime Minister—suave, debonair with a beaming smile: warm Technicolor in contrast to the washed-out monochrome of the outgoing Tory government of John Major. As D:Ream’s hit song (adopted by new Labour as a campaign anthem) repeatedly assured us, “Things Can Only Get Better”.

Tobias, a young German, swept up in the vibrant promise of Cool Britannia, has arrived at Wordsworth High School to serve for a while as language assistant. The school itself—battleship grey doors, scruffy notice boards, ceiling tiles missing everywhere you look—is in need of an upgrade. The kids are running riot and the teachers are weary and stressed.

Not to worry, Mr Blair will soon declare his three immediate priorities—“education, education, education”—backing it up with investment of £3 billion.

Tobias is shown around by a proud but slightly delusional headteacher, Hugh Mills (Tom England as a warm-hearted Welshman). Mr Mills blithely wafts away any mention of issues—at least until he encounters Kelly with her wrist full of ‘shag bands’: “if a boy gets one off you, you have to shag him.”

The rest of the staff, regularly resorting to the comfort of a mug of tea, include deputy head and enforcer of discipline Louise Turner (Kerry Lovell). Miss Turner is possessed by the spirit of Robocop; some of this is due to the high jinx of Year 11 (it’s their final day before they return to sit GCSEs), but mostly because she and history teacher Mr McIntyre (Greg Shewring) got carried away the night before after watching young Stephen Twigg snatch Michael Portillo’s seat for Labour. For Paul McIntyre, this was a personal landslide victory; for the deputy head, the first big mistake of the Blair era.

Blown away by Ms Robocop, the devastated historian has other things to contend with. A troubled student, Emily (Emily Greenslade), is kicking up a fuss about not being allowed on a history trip to York. This is the only student role featured in detail.

Bright but disruptive, Emily divides the staff as to what should be done with her. Mr McIntyre (whom she campaigns to have sacked) and Miss Turner want her expelled. Against this, the headteacher (for once abandoning his Pollyanna impression for a passionately reasoned apologia) argues that, if Emily fails, it’s because the school has failed her. The gentle, gullible English teacher Miss Belltop-Doyle (Jesse Meadows), who believes you “can’t have too much kindness”, is also in favour of a reprieve; even after inadvertently becoming the one who suffers most at Emily’s hands. Meanwhile, sports teacher Mr Pashley (Ben Vardy) is angst-ridden over the premature demise of a confiscated Tamagochi.

The climactic scene of rooftop protest brings together Tobias, Emily and Miss Belltop-Doyle (clad now as Ginger Spice). Even King Arthur puts in an appearance—it all makes sense, don’t worry.

The Wardrobe Ensemble’s excellent one-act show is not really here to provide answers, more to lament—with lots of fun, crisp choreography and unflagging energy thrown in—an opportunity somehow missed. As Tobias points out to us, the teachers of 1997, with their tired but hopeful looks, have been replaced by the teachers of 2018: just as tired, but without the hope.

My guess is a fair proportion of tonight’s crowd are members of that underrated, over-criticised profession (school has just broken up for the Easter hols, after all). Despite a slow start, laughs of recognition pervade the auditorium from the off.

True to the company’s name, Helena Middleton and Jesse Jones somehow pull off the potentially fraught task of co-directing this genuinely ensemble piece: 7 performers, doubling as teachers and students. The music of the era features throughout and Emily Greenslade’s choreography has the entire cast switching deftly from ultra-cool kids’ moves to the pedagogic equivalent of ‘dad at a wedding’. Tremendous.

Greenslade also uses her dancer’s skills to bring a persuasively sassy physicality to the role of her student namesake. James Newton creates in Tobias a calmly sane visitor to this mad, frenetic world: initially stilted and restrained, yet ultimately lovable. These two provide the standout performances of a strong cast. You don’t have to be teacher to enjoy it, or to muse on the points it raises.

NOTE: I’m assured that no Tamagochis were (irreversibly) harmed in the making of this show.

Reviewer: Martin Thomasson