Boldly going where few playwrights have (ever?) gone before, Alex MacKeith puts the British education system – warts, pressures, dysfunctionality and all – on stage in this naturalistic play about the realities of working in a primary school.

Set on the day south London’s St Barnabas receives its SATs results, with considerable implications for its future, we are there as a fly on the wall in headteacher Jo’s office, sharing in the mounting problems, mundane dramas – and a particularly infuriating tutor – she must face.

A razor-sharp script and talented cast ensure the intensity of a static location and an often minute-by-minute time frame come off. Pinpoint-accurate references and jargon pepper the lines, capturing the “shifting sand” that is constantly changing government education policy. Ann Ogbomo is superb as the composed, competent headteacher, who behind closed doors is close to breaking point under the demands of superiors, staff, parents and a persistent soon-to-be ex-husband. Snappy dialogue and a seamless dynamic between her and an excellent Fola Evans-Akingbola as her assistant Lara carry much of the play, their quick-fire exchanges exposing the myriad of complex structures, onerous rules and stakeholders they must navigate as a struggling school. Their relationship reveals both Jo’s authority and the cracks in it, with Lara questioning her decision to contact a parent directly about the absence of a child, and is at once professional yet affectionate, held in a hilarious moment where Jo teaches Lara “the stare” all teachers must perfect to make kids be quiet without question.

Oliver Dench nails his comic timing as the well-meaning but often misjudging tutor, Tom. A privileged Oxbridge grad coming from outside the world of assessment frameworks and financial concerns Jo and Lara inhabit, his is both a wonderfully irritating and refreshing force, patronizing Lara with a re-enactment of his fun but off-the-curriculum lesson using lyrics of Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall and determined in his fraught tête-à-tête with Jo to assert that learning should be fun. It’s through him (MacKeith’s own experience as a tutor inspired the play) we see the clash in ideals between having the space to bring creativity into the classroom and the harsh realities of inner-city schools needing their pupils to jump through bureaucratic hoops. Jo’s own frustration boils over into a tirade ridiculing Tom’s approach like something out of Dead Poets Society: “You are so wrapped up in your privileged little worldview that you really thought you could swan in here and produce a class of geniuses by doing whatever the hell you wanted.” Kevin Howarth brilliantly evokes a laugh in just a few short lines as handiman Tony and returns as convincingly aggressive, struggling father David, with Gemma Fray playing an innocent Pokemon Go-playing Mikaela, convinced she helps her father gardening when they visit houses in the evening. Anna Reid’s set design is expertly executed: as with each line of the play, every detail of the headteacher’s office is carefully arranged, from its grey carpet tiles to its colourful wall displays.

The third of Antic Face’s productions, director Charlie Parham and his team look set to be a growing force in bringing exciting new writing to new audiences. By holding up the education system under fluorescent strip lighting, the production doesn’t offer answers but simply asks questions and, crucially, summons empathy with its characters, something MacKeith believes is a crucial role for theatre in a healthy society. A thought-provoking debut, School Play is immersive, humorous and above all educational.

★★★★

By Sarah Bradbury. First published on The Upcoming on 8th February 2017.
Photo: Guy Bell

School Play is at Southwark Playhouse from 1st until 25th February 2017, for further information or to book visit here.

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