The Wardrobe Ensemble‘s love letter to education in 1997 and the dawn of Tony Blair’s Labour government, Education, Education, Education takes to the Royal stage until 2 June 2018.
Set in a “regular” secondary school the day after Tony Blair and Labour won their landslide election, we bare witness to the stresses of teacherly life, their desires to get the best for their students, and the arguments about what “the best” actually is.
Narrated, of sorts, by German Teaching Assistant Tobias (James Newton) as he arrives for his first day at Wordsworth Comprehensive School, who has a love of all things British – 1997 marked the height of Cool Britania after all, with Britpop, Spice Girls and Take That. The whole show is littered with wonderful musical nostalgia, alongside mentions of the crazes that those of us who lived through it, either as a student or member of staff, will remember fondly – Tamagotchis, “shag bands”, and listening to Blur on cassette.
Wordsworth Comprehensive features your usual mix of teaching staff – Miss Turner (Kerry Lovell) the strict, shouty, takes-no-prisoners teacher we all came to fear (mine was Mrs Irvine, my chemistry and physics teacher – utterly terrifying), Miss Belltop-Doyle (Jesse Meadows) the creative and inspiring English teacher who treats the curriculum as a guideline rather than a rule book, P.E. teacher Mr Pashley (Ben Vardy) who takes a relaxed approach to covering year 7 French, Mr McIntyre (Greg Shrewing) the form tutor who has had enough of his students and Headmaster Hugh Mills (Tom England) who’s trying to keep the staff, and the students, from revolting. Add in the receptionist who is always oddly absent from the reception desk (Emily Greenslade) and you have the full complement of senior school staff characters.
Each actor also takes on the role of a student, bearing their own real name, but it’s Emily Greenslade’s story we’re told – barred from taking part in the school trip to York due to previous bad behaviour, she feels hard done by by tutor Mr McIntyre, and decides to take her grievance schoolwide with petitions and sit-ins. She becomes the centre of arguments from either side of the teaching camp – should troubled students be automatically expelled for the good of the school, or would that be failing them too?
Besides the brilliantly performed storyline, Education… is a wonder to watch thanks to the direction of Jesse Jones and Helena Middleton – particularly the scene where Hugh Mills is taking Tobias on a tour of the school, culminating in a beautifully choreographed moment with rotating doors, and appropriate 90s tracks for each subject. The simple set of movable doors, tables and chairs is used to great effect and always seems in motion in the hands of the talented ensemble cast.
There’s just enough nostalgia here to transport the audience back to the late nineties without labouring the point – the musical accompaniment, which was very much the backing to British life in the nineties, is perfectly pitched, while the mention of Acorn computers arriving in a rival school and a flashback sex scene that referenced Titanic both drew knowing laughs from the audience (which appeared to a mix of current teachers and those of us who lived through the era in school uniform).
The 80-minute play races past with superb quick changes of scene, often relying on little more than a door closing or someone walking back on in a school jumper and is a fantastic example of how physical theatre and even dance can be used in an otherwise straight play to bring a story to life.
Education, Education, Education was Tony Blair’s mantra back in ’97, and looking at it from years in the future it’s not all that hard to imagine the delight of educators across the country at the prospect of proper funding and non-temporary school buildings, instead of having to send begging letters out to parents for essential school supplies.
It might be set 21 years ago, but the issues and emotions raised feel completely relevant to the troubles in the education sector now, even the warped sense of national pride and the Brexit vote. Education, Education, Education is poignant, superbly funny, and beautiful to watch, and thanks to the well oiled Wardrobe Ensemble team, is a production not to be missed.
Education, Education, Education runs until 2 June 2018 at Royal & Derngate. Tickets available from www.royalandderngate.co.uk
Performance: Weds 30 May 2018, Royal Auditorium, Northampton
Rebecca is a theatre lover originally from Birmingham. She founded On Stage Northants in 2017, and is passionate about promoting Northampton performing arts. Can usually be found behind the scenes, and occasionally in front of them too. Bec also runs Rebel Peacock Creative Media.