Early May 1997 was a big deal in the world of education, though not because of anything that was actually happening in schools but rather because of what was occurring in Westminster. John Major’s Tory government had been swept away after 18 years of power by the landslide victory of Tony Blair’s New Labour and a sense of optimism and a bright new future pervaded staffrooms up and down the land. I can well recall the feeling that in David Blunkett (new Education Secretary) there was someone who would fight schools’ corners and Tony Blair himself had promised us the earth, hadn’t he … so what could go wrong? A devised piece of theatre I saw last night attempts to provide some perspective on events.
As someone who spent rather more years at the “chalkface” than he perhaps cares to remember I was fascinated to see what a production which looked back to the state of education in the late 1990s would make of this particular time’s contribution to the way we are today. The Wardrobe Ensemble’s Education Education Education premiered last year at the Edinburgh Festival and won awards as well as good reviews from the critics. It has now moved to Shoreditch Town Hall for a short residency.
Titled after what was, perhaps, Tony Blair’s most famous sound bite (“She was the people’s princess”, aside) this short sharp 80 minute play treats us to a very special day in the life of Wordsworth, a bog standard comprehensive just about avoiding special measures and saying goodbye to its Year 11s as they go on study leave and rampage around the school on muck up day. It is also the day following the landslide election victory which saw the Labour Party end 18 years of Conservative rule; the teachers are jubilant as they anticipate a much improved professional future. Our narrator figure is Tobias, the young newly appointed German language assistant; he thinks Britain is the coolest place on earth to be but finds just one day in his new job rather taints his optimistic view. For the pupils are evidently out of hand and the teachers are possibly more childish than their charges. Then there is misunderstood and rebellious Emily, a Year 10 girl with “isshues” who starts a protest in the canteen and eventually physically harms a member of the staff. It is Tobias’ first day in the school; it will prove to be Emily’s last.
The actors are extremely energetic flinging themselves around the stage to the point where I felt tired on their behalf. The seven strong ensemble play all the characters, both adults and children using broad brushstrokes to delineate characters quickly and efficiently. Some of these are somewhat stereotyped – the weak head, the gorgon deputy, the well-meaning but ineffectual English teacher, the somewhat dense PE teacher. Having said that I certainly met those type of people myself and in this fast paced and short piece there is little room for subtle development of character. I was strongly reminded of the John Godber play Teechers which, coincidentally, also started life in Edinburgh.
Staging is extremely minimal, though none the less ingenious, and the various locations – including the school roof – are cleverly depicted aided by appropriate lighting and a highly effective soundscape. The music soundtrack is very important to the action and the nostalgia laden classic late 90s pop drew murmurs of recognition from the audience. This and the extreme precision of the inventive choreography helped the piece move seamlessly from scene to scene. I don’t know whether it was the acoustics of the venue or some of the soundtrack being too loud but there were some parts of the dialogue that passed me by; however, I don’t think I missed anything too important.
My main criticism is that the first 15 minutes or so failed to give the audience a central plot on which to concentrate. Rather it was a series of comic sketches which painted a collage of school life. Amusing and droll as these undoubtedly were I began to fear that the whole piece was going to be little more than an excuse for the performers to demonstrate their abilities as comedians. Then as we began to focus on Emily’s troubles and Tobias’ reactions the piece gained in strength and purpose. I think this can be a problem with devised pieces when there is no central writer with a clear idea of where the narrative is heading. A rather heavy handed trope about King Arthur and the golden age of Camelot also did not add much to the experience in my opinion.
An undoubted strength, though, was a reminder of just how silly the late 90s could be. Cool Britannia, shag bands, Britpop, Tamagotchis, cheese strings, the Macarena, the UK’s last Eurovision win (yes, it was that long ago – Katrina and the Waves, since you ask). All the above and many more drew nostalgic beams of delight from the audience – the majority of whom would, I estimate, have been in school themselves at the time; as indeed was I, albeit on the other side of the staffroom door.
Does the play paint an accurate picture of May 2nd 1997 in comprehensive schools and their hopes for a new dawn? I’d say it does and it manages to do so in a way that is both entertaining and thought provoking. The secondary meaning of “education” is an enlightening experience – for Tobias, Emily and the Shoreditch audience it certainly was.*
The song “Things Can Only Get Better” brought the play’s proceedings to a close. An anthem of hope ironically used to highlight what has happened since. If hope has declined in the intervening years (and I think most people in standard education would say that it has) this play is a timely reminder of how things were when things had reached crisis point and how they might have been… if only.
*This review first appeared on the website of Sardines Magazine.