Helen Monks and Matt Woodhead, translated by Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi
LUNG with Leeds Playhouse
Oldham Coliseum Theatre
An anonymous letter alleged to be between Islamic extremists, leaked to the media, used the term 'Trojan Horse' to describe a process by which Park View Academy in Birmingham was allegedly radicalising its 98% Muslim pupils in a state-funded school, a term which coincidentally (or not) had been used as a chapter title in a polemical book by the then Education Secretary Michael Gove, Celsius 7/7, nearly a decade earlier about the threat of Islamism to 'British values'.
This production from LUNG is an equally polemical examination of the scandal based on 200 hours of interviews and public documents that gives a terrifying account of how, according to them, a government can use people to push an agenda and justify its policies, ruining many lives in the process. The story of the school that had been turned into a training camp for jihadists was lapped up by the local and national press, but, as far as I'm aware, many of the details brought out in this play, such as those mentioned by the solicitor of a suspended teacher at a hearing that later collapsed, didn't make the front page of the Daily Mail or the Sun.
Before this letter appeared, Park View was a major success story, its chair of governors credited with turning it from a 'failing' school to an 'outstanding' one according to OFSTED reports, with exam results way above the national average in a very deprived area of Birmingham. After the scandal broke, possibly with some interference from Westminster, OFSTED reinspected, interviewing everyone and looking everywhere, and the school was suddenly put into 'special measures'.
Some of their claims were demolished by the solicitor mentioned before: they didn't see any musical instruments in the music room because they didn't look in the cupboard where they were kept (and if they'd asked they might have been shown the photo of pupils playing at the NEC with Pink Floyd) and the Muslim posters they mentioned around the school were for a leading Islamic charity—but somehow they neglected to mention the Children in Need posters next to them. And was there a plot to take over other schools? Well, if there was, it was by the Department for Education, who had asked them to take over two other failing schools in the area after the great success they had had at their own school.
But the report was used when Gove set up an investigation and to run it appointed a former head of counter-terrorism, Peter Clark, who had no expertise in education and didn't visit the school. However his report came to the conclusions that fed into Gove's existing views that he wrote about in his book, giving him the ammunition he needed to be seen to be taking decisive action against the insidious Islamic plot.
There was one teacher at the school who claimed that there was some truth in the reports; she claimed that she was forced out of a previous school as the Muslims took over and she felt she could see the same thing happening here. The teacher who was suspended admitted he had sent some messages in a private WhatsApp group (which Clark somehow got hold of) that demonstrated views, including against homosexuality, that didn't help his case, but he insisted that those views were never imposed on his pupils—in fact he showed great tolerance towards a girl who came out as gay to him, promising not to tell her father.
While this is a play with a message, it comes in a slickly-designed package, with a script by Helen Monks and Matt Woodhead and direction by Woodhead that crackle along, barely stopping to draw breath. It is performed with great energy by a cast of just five—Komal Amin, Mustafa Chaudhry, Gurkiran Kaur, Qasim Mahmood and Keshina Misa—who each create multiple distinct characters, sometimes switching almost instantly, without there ever being any confusion about which character they are playing. There is also a simultaneous Urdu translation available if required via headsets, performed by Madiha Ansari and Uzair Bhatti.
Our London reviewer Keith Mckenna described this production in his review of 2019 as "probably the most important play of the year and should be shown in every city". The story itself was quite well-known for a time, but this is a side of it that should be heard but will never get in the newspapers that trumpeted the Government line in 2014. While Gove and May got plenty of capital from showing themselves as our saviours from the evil terrorist threat and the tabloids got their shock stories to feed the prejudices of their readers, it was the teachers and the children at the school who suffered, especially those who were about to take their GCSEs when the story broke.
The tour has been extended, although perhaps not to every city, but, significantly, it ends with a performance at the Houses of Parliament. I wonder if it will make anyone there think differently about the issues it raises.
Reviewer: David Chadderton