The Old Vic, London
Saturday 26th September 2015 19.30
Kate – Alex Clackworthy
Alia – Nikki Patel
Richard – Sam Jenkins-Shaw
Kaye – Amy Dawson
Suzy – Natalie Klamar
Samira – Sukh Olja
Hettie – Lucy Briggs-Owen
Sarah – Peta Cornish
Niamh – Carla Langley
David – Matthew Aubrey
Matt – Bill Parfitt
Mr Crane – Rob Brydon
Rob – Ben Lloyd-Hughes
Anna – Sofia Stuart
Oliver- Joshua McGuire
Meg – Sandra Reid
Bill – Brian Vernel
Ed – Louis Martin
I suppose Rob Brydon was the USP of this play. We first saw him doing standup at the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton, after Marion & Geoff was a success. Then there was Gavin & Stacey … that was the TV series to have a support role in. Rob Brydon as Uncle Bryn, James Corden as Smithy, Ruth Jones as Nessa, Alison Steadman as Pam, Sheridan Smith as Rudi. Didn’t they all do well?
Rob Brydon as Mr Crane
This is an important production, as it marks the beginning of Matthew Warchus’s period as Artistic Director of the Old Vic, and it’s a bold start with a new play. Matthew Warchus directed La Bete, which would be one of the very best productions since I started this blog. He has also started off with two of our favourite actors, Lucy Briggs-Owen and Joshua McGuire in the cast.
The play is apposite and covers a wide range of opinions on education. It was very close to home for us. Our grandson had to face a gruelling Eleven Plus exam the actual day we saw it. Five years earlier, our grandkids, a year apart were offered state primary schools several miles apart in opposite directions. My daughter protested over the distance, and was told if she walked across heathland on a tiny muddy path with two younger siblings, one school was just under three miles away (meeting the LEA’s obligations), though it was 4.5 miles by road. Scandals over post code “fixing” over the popular primary school near us exploded a couple of years ago, when parents were renting places within the catchment area for a few months before the choice. Our local authority relies totally on parents in the leafier areas going private. If everyone said “Yes, I’m going to a state school” they’re hundreds of places short. This is what much of the play is about. It was ringing bells and ticking boxes for us throughout. Last year, we took our granddaughter to the exams at both local selective single-sex state grammar schools. This was on successive Saturdays, and there were hundreds of anxious little girls and even more anxious parents. Most 10 year olds tried to look cool, but some had been forced to go in state school uniforms, others in private school blazers. Private primary schools are often the route to state selective grammars. The play situation differs in that the issue appears to be post code lottery … i.e. more desirable state schools. You know, the ones where Labour ministers can proudly say ‘I went to a state comprehensive and it was excellent and got me to Oxford’. They don’t mention it happened to be in Hampstead. I still don’t know whether overt selection is fairer than postcode selection. I’m not even sure if the school in the play is comprehensive or grammar … some areas rely on primary headteacher recommendation rather than an Eleven Plus Exam. An exam is not mentioned, but whether the parents in the play can afford tuition is crucial. That works either way. Also extra-curricular stuff, preferably unusual. Grades in bassoon or euphonium count.
We thought the play was a first class, thought-provoking play with fluid direction, as good a cast as you’ll find anywhere, and great music from two electric guitarists, one male, one female, placed high above the audience.
The play has a large cast, sometimes playing a chorus of schoolkids in blue uniforms. It opens with everyone standing in a circle around the stage in blue blazers playing recorders. It is played in the round.
I’ll try and separate the strands. It opens with Alia, our central character, having an interview at Oxford. This is a “flash-forward” on the rest of the play. Alia is an immigrant. Father killed in prison. Mother missing. Uncles murdered by the Taliban. She has trekked through Turkey and Vienna to get to England, where she was fostered. This might sound quite contemporary for 2015.
Rob Brydon and class
The strands slowly become apparent. The “Hastings” strand, or blue uniform strand has Rob Brydon as Mr Crane, a teacher, usually addressing an unseen class, just like Joyce Grenfell’s “Not now, George” primary school sketches, though we assume this is lower secondary. He interacts with Alia in person, but otherwise works alone talking to unseen pupils, and as with Joyce Grenfell using silent pausing for their replies. He’s ideal casting, does it so well, but as a fan of the Grenfell sketches, which I have pastiched myself, I have to say the concept works even better with her imagined primary kids.
Then we have the “school gate” strand with parents, mainly mums, one dad, outside a primary school for 9 / 10 year olds. Exactly my grandson’s year group. This features Lucy Briggs-Owen, as Hettie, a Scottish middle class mum, trying to get her child a place in a selective school by the private route. We have the striving middle class couple in mid divorce, the committed anti-private school mum who will not pay for tuition on principle (we could name a friend who was exactly like her), the chavvy drunken single parent who prefers to care for a chicken or a dog than her kid, and the Northern Irish nurse or care worker just hoping her kid will get the needed place. Her job is not mentioned but she has the blue uniform top.
The last strand is a committee discussing educational policy. This is in a setting with smart red, white and blue plastic chairs and a round coffee table. They sit in different seats each time, which means that in the round we get a chance to see each of them well.
We know they’re all teachers. We have the management type (he went to St Paul’s), the Old Etonian teacher, the grammar school-educated woman of Indian origin who went to Oxford, the Afro-Caribbean woman who went to state school, the quiet greedy guy who can’t keep his hands off the biscuits, and the stroppy socialist Scot. Three of the six went to Oxbridge, in itself a comment on the system. The committee decides to invite a real schoolkid to join them, and this is Alia. She’s now in a green uniform, having moved away from Hastings where Rob Brydon’s Mr Crane was her inspirational teacher.
Alia (Nikki Patel) and Mr Crane (Rob Brydon)
We assume the interweaving strands have no connection, except for Alia’s presence in two of them, but the strands reflect upon each other, and the arguments are played out in the school gate and committee strands, interspersed by scenes with Mr Crane, the good teacher.
In the committee strand, the real battle is between Joshua McGuire’s Old Etonian, Oliver and Brian Vernel’s Scot, Bill. Both argue persuasively, Bill argues that you can’t have a level playing field because of social inequality, with Oliver putting the opposite argument that equality might mean reducing everything to a lowest common denominator. The same argument is played out between Lucy Briggs-Owen’s Hettie, trying to give her kid the best chance via private school and tuition, and Natalie Klamar’s committed to equal chances, Suzy. And Suzy ends up with no place for her daughter, because 26 people just moved into the catchment area in a fiddled post-code lottery. Trouble is, it’s all true. Trouble is, all the points on both sides are right in their way, though Alia’s solution to the committee is simple and original.
Hettie (Lucy Briggs-Owen) and Suzy (Natalie Klamar)
There were points where Lucy Briggs-Owen got an immediate applause following her long impassioned and breathless rationalization to Suzy, and where Joshua McGuire got one after making his points. Both actors have charisma. The committee discuss discipline as the thing parents say they want most, but Mr Crane is in trouble for disciplining an unruly boy by making him sing Mary Mary Quite Contrary, thus causing his mum to complain to the school (as she often does). The mum (who we never see) is like the ones who appear in tabloids complaining their kid has been sent home for wearing multiple nose rings and a tattoo on her shaven head saying “Fuck Education.” ‘It’ll break her nan’s heart,’ she’ll protest, ‘She spent a fortune on that tattoo.” Rob Brydon does two one-sided phone conversations with the headteacher which are brilliant. The best one-sided phone work since Neil LaBute years ago.
Oliver and Bill come to blows over a tin of biscuits
Two fabulous set pieces were a female fight at the school gates with hair pulling and rolling around, and a flapjack fight at the committee meeting (somewhat reminiscent of the recent Rules For Living food fight there.) Tempers will flare on these issues. If you have a child or grandchild in this situation,you will know how close to the heart it is. My companion and I both went to state selective grammars. Even after all these decades, the fear, the trauma, the lost local friends are still with us. Yes, it is about fairness, but very very few of us would inflict total fairness on our offspring … as Suzy does.
The play garnered mainly four star reviews, with one odd nasty two star. I’ll give it five.
Great guitar playing from Ben Lochrie (Guitarist of The Year, 2011) and Carmen Vanderburg. Early on Alia quotes the lyric to The Beatles “Revolution” in her interview, and an instrumental version becomes a theme, while at the end Let It Be is played over the closing scene. Both well-chosen, but as we went out of the theatre, the final word went to a female vocal version of We Can Work It Out. I guess that was the closing message. For a welcome change, the programme credits The Beatles for Revolution and Let it Be, though as they’re doing a new version they should really be thanking Lennon-McCartney rather than The Beatles. Paul’s biography would point out that you should be thanking John for Revolution and Paul for Let It Be, whatever the credits say. No credit for We Can Work It Out though.
Excellent article by the writer, Tamsin Oglesby. In what might be a reflection of the theme, the cast notes do not begin (as they normally do) “Studied at RADA” but just go straight into production history. Thus removing the knowing, “Ah, yeah! RADA” comments people so often make when they see how many of the stars attended the actors (state) Eton. As there are so many comments on Oxbridge in the play, this is wise.
I totally disagreed with the article by Louise Tickle on education. When we were looking for schools for our kids, many years ago, by far the worst school we saw was Steiner. Rows of disconsolate boys knitting. No one allowed to write until they could make a pen and ink. An “art class” where twenty kids had tried to copy the same picture. It all fell apart when they told us that parents had to sign an agreement to forbid TV. “We write educational video,” I said politely. ‘There’s no such thing,’ said the head teacher. I might have explained Marshall McLuhan to her, but she was far, far too stupid to grasp the concept. Every state school we saw was better. And the teachers were genuinely qualified.
It”s a good title, we can all see what it means. Educational placing for the future is conditional on all sorts of social and parental factors, explored here. The play has the word “unconditional” in its last speech too. Take it as that and it’s fine. Veer into talking about English grammar and unfortunately ELT teachers hackles will rise. Conditionals are not about time, or tense, and they are divided into three classes:
Type 1: If you do this, that will / may happen.
Type 2: If you did this, that would /might happen.
Type 3: If you had done this, that would / might have happened.
ELT grammarians would not describe any of them as “future” though type 3 is sometimes called a past conditional. Some older grammars call type 1 a “future” conditional, because it can use “will” or “shall.” These words are modals, not “futures” to modern grammarians.
In the play, Alia says “Would? Second conditional? Future …” Yes, it’s second conditional. But, sorry, no. It’s not future in any sense of the word. It’s hypothetical. I’d just snip out that word “future” as a kindness to we afflicted ELT teachers.
Successive days at the two great older prestige “non West End theatres” the Royal Court and the Old Vic. They’ve forced the Old Vic into the round. We’ve been there twice in the round, and it has been fine. This time we were seated in Row Q in the “stage circle” the seating area placed on the stage. Rows P and R look wider. Row Q? Can I ask Mr Warchus to take a group of six foot plus people and place them in Row Q for two hours? It’s excruciatingly uncomfortable. The bar is exactly knee height and closer than my upper legs will allow. I was in extreme pain for much of the production. It’s appalling seating design, and should only be advertised (as Bath Theatre Royal does) as “Restricted legroom.” I was restricted badly the previous night at the Royal Court. I would put this as two inches tighter at least. I would say “Severely restricted legroom.” Do not book Row Q if you are over six foot tall … no, take two inches off that. Five foot ten. It makes budget airlines look luxurious. It makes the Sam Wanamaker Theatre look comfortable, and I never thought I’d say that. However the provision of extra loos behind those seats was welcome in the interval.
OTHER REVIEWS ON THIS BLOG:
La Bête by David Hirson, West End