Old Vic Theatre
“Education, education, education” is the topic of Future Conditional, the opening play of the Matthew Warchus regime, as he takes up the challenge of succeeding Kevin Spacey at the Old Vic.
The quote from Tony Blair is used by playwright Tamsin Oglesby as an introduction to a lively evening that will entertain viewers at the same time as allowing them to enter into the debate about whether the British system of educating children is fit for purpose.
She puts our schools and elite universities under a critical microscope for 2½ gripping hours, looking at the subject from a variety of angles.
At the centre of the debate sit Rob Brydon, well cast as kindly but caustic schoolteacher Crane, making the most of his comedic skills when lecturing an unruly but invisible class.
The one pupil who does catch the eye is confident stage debutante Nikki Patel as Alia. She might be too good to be true but this Pakistani immigrant, who lost her father to death in a political prison and whose mother has disappeared, probably forever, is a perfect role model.
Not only is she articulate and single-minded but Alia becomes the catalyst for heated debate at two locations. The first is an Oxford college where the only impediment to her entry is hidebound tradition and the prospect of a lost donation.
Now living happily with foster parents in Leytonstone, she also steps onto the political stage, as the 16-year-old is co-opted to a quarrelsome quango.
Where the other members deal in theories, largely battling over whether the elitist system favoured by Oliver played by Joshua McGuire is better or worse than the egalitarian equivalent proposed by Brian Vernel‘s Bill, the brave youngster in her school blazer really sets the cat amongst the pigeons with an intelligent proposal that would potentially change the face of British education for the better.
The third line of enquiry features a diverse group of mothers (and a father) at the gates of a comprehensive primary school. What starts out as a group of friends becomes increasingly combative as they try to find schools for their 11-year-olds while protecting political principles and, if necessary, resorting to underhand tactics.
These scenes can be heart-breaking, especially when Natalie Klamar playing Suzy discovers that her daughter has been consigned by the postcode lottery to the scrapheap of no hopers before she even gets to secondary school.
Using these three starting points, Miss Oglesby and her large cast allow viewers to consider a subject that easily defeats the best politicians (including those working with Ed Miliband who joined the theatrical community on opening night) from numerous angles.
While some of the plotting and characterisation can be a little schematic, deliberately pitting opposites against each other to get messages across, the overall impact is powerful in a work that has some of the characteristics of the political plays of Sir David Hare combined a soupçon of with the freshness and charm of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys.
Matthew Warchus and his co-director Annabel Bolton make good use of the in-the-round configuration in his new theatre, aided by a very fast-moving design concept from Rob Howell.
What would be a lively evening in any event is then given an extra push thanks to a pair of rock guitarists combining a couple of Beatles hits with music composed for the specially for the occasion by Christopher Nightingale.
It is always pleasing when a new artistic director opens his account with a freshly commissioned hit and that should be the case with this politically charged but never dull new drama.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher