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Teechers Leavers 22

John Godber
Hull Truck Theatre Company and John Godber Company
Hull Truck Theatre

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Purvi Parmar, Levi Payne and Martha Godber Credit: Ian Hodgson and Ant Hobling
Levi Payne, Martha Godber and Purvi Parma Credit: Ian Hodgson and Ant Hobling
Levi Payne and Martha Godber Credit: Ian Hodgson and Ant Hobling

When John Godber wrote Teechers in 1987, neither he nor anyone could have predicted the onslaught of initiatives and policies that would swamp the world of education over the ensuing three and a half decades.

Merely a year later, children started taking GCSEs, rather than O levels. Next came the National Curriculum—which determined what students needed to know—and by implication, what they didn’t (i.e. Drama barely got a look in). Then, in no particular order, there was Ofsted, Local Management of Schools, State Attainment Tests, League Tables, Academies and Academy Chains, 14–19 Curriculum, eradication of coursework, Key Skills, Core Skills, Functional Skills and Personal Learning and Thinking Skills.

Pupils became ‘learners’ and teaching became ‘facilitation’. Local Authorities all but collapsed and Industry got involved. Consequently, schools that might have had names like Slackdale Comprehensive became known as The Oasis Academy for Excellence in Learning. In fact, the word school completely disappeared, replaced by ‘academy’, ‘college’ or, rather more worryingly, ‘institute’.

It was popularly supposed, around this time, that an antidote to poor behaviour was a really smart school unform, so hard-up parents were expected to fork out for purple blazers and striped ties that did nothing to address their children’s learning needs, but did make them good casting for Little Lord Fauntleroy. An added bonus was that the UK could proudly boast the best-dressed teenaged thuggery in Europe.

Then in 2010, Michael Gove became Education Secretary and things got really bad.

For all its energy, humour and insight, therefore, Teechers became out of date very quickly. For one thing, it depicted a Headteacher who knew her students and periodically came out of her office. My brief experience at working for an academy chain included not one confirmed sighting of the Chief Executive despite the bugger’s photograph appearing on every page of the school (sorry, academy) magazine and the Performing Arts Centre, where he would never be seen dead, bearing his name.

But now Teechers is back—not so much revamped for a new era but given the kind of fundamental overhaul that happens in Education every half hour. Hull Truck’s co-production with the John Godber Company has seen Teechers re-emerge as part of Hull Truck’s 50th anniversary celebrations, angrier and funnier than ever and beautifully played by a uniformly excellent cast.

If you’ve not seen Teechers, the premise is simple enough. Three previously disaffected kids put on a play about their adventures in Drama as a tribute to their teacher who is leaving to work in a ‘better’ (i.e. private) school. Central to their story is the depiction of the drama teacher—Ms Nixon, idealistic, passionate, forthright and on a mission to give the kids an opportunity to use their imaginations rather than their memories and their human rather than IT skills. She is thwarted by an overstuffed, knowledge-based curriculum, zero facilities, narrow-minded senior colleagues and Doug the 'jobsworth' caretaker.

One of Godber’s many skills as a playwright is that, similar to Dario Fo, at his best, his use of comedy accentuates the anger of his message rather than dilutes it. There is a fury which underpins the antics of the students and staff, brilliantly choregraphed by Freddie Garland under the taut but imaginative direction of Mark Babych. The dialogue is fast-paced and witty, as one might expect, but the sense of frustration and injustice is palpable. “Why are we doing so much writing?” complains Salty (Levi Payne) as the kids attempt to complete ‘Drama essays’ on their phones. It’s a humorous image, but demonstrates perfectly the cruel absurdity of forcing children whose families can’t afford a home computer, to write essays about a practical subject.

The students in Teechers may not do their homework, but Godber certainly has done. 1987 almost seems a golden era when compared with the educational vandalism meted out by Gove and his ilk in the modern era—for example, insisting that a GCSE in Drama has a more than 70% written content. The consequences of academies, chronic under-funding, COVID and digital poverty may be treated with humour but are lethally well observed in this new version.

There are hangovers from the original that don't quite fit in today's educational context and seemed anachronistic in this production. The school disco where the smitten Salty tries to 'get off' with Ms Nixon and the altercation between Nixon and school bully Oggy Moxon simply wouldn't happen now. These moments are explained as being part of the play the kids put on but, even so, indicate the era of Teechers' origins. The school trip to Priscilla would now be so hidebound with risk assessments and permission slips as to make it all but unmanageable, but the retention of those scenes is justified by their humour, physical expertise and compelling theatricality.

By its very nature, Teechers is an economic piece—written in the style which is, in many ways, Godber’s hallmark: a small cast playing multiple roles, with an emphasis on physicality, against a minimal set. In a way, it feels counterintuitive to see it given a ‘big production’ treatment on the main stage of Hull Truck. However, the strengths of the production more than justify such a treatment. Caitlin Mawhinney’s design, encompassing a shambolic classroom, is the perfect environment for the frantic events of Whitewall Academy, with a skilful soundscape from Charlotte Bickley (the tennis match is a high point!) and wonderfully atmospheric lighting from Jessie Addinall (just as impressive as their recent lighting design for Hound of the Baskervilles at East Riding Theatre)

Each of the three members of the cast was on brilliant form. Martha Godber plays Hobby with a wonderfully judged sullen resentment and wilful rebelliousness. Her blistering anger at her teacher for going to work in a private school was a moment of chilling rage, expertly played. Purvi Parmar captures the desperation of Maureen Whitham—the hopeless history teacher, utterly out of her depth—and Levi Payne provides us with the final painful image of the night. His angry, hapless and desperate-to-please Salty sits alone in a spotlight, at his desk: confused, frightened and angry. It’s an unusually downbeat ending, but all the more memorable for that.

Teechers is one of the best productions at Hull Truck in recent times and, for me, the revised version is better than the original—it’s less cosy, less anecdotal and offers a more courageous polemic. It’s the kind of work Truck and Godber became famous for: edgy, observational, political, funny and tragic, uplifting and hard-hitting.

Keep going John.

Reviewer: Richard Vergette