It’s 1997 and there’s a new Labour government. “Liberal Tory” Tony Blair, as PM, ushers in a new era of Cool Britannia, pledges an increase of spending for schools, and German teaching assistant Tobias starts his first day at a typical comprehensive.
The Wardrobe Ensemble of writer-actors have fully collaborated to put together this mix of satire, social comment, music cues and physical theatre.
As we take our seats to an eclectic 90s mix-tape (including that disco gem “Ooh Ah Just a Little Bit” from 1996’s Eurovision), we’re looking at a set of two doors, two noticeboards, and a ceiling where many of the tiles are missing or broken.
The optimism of head Hugh, a positive bag of nervous energy, the coiled aggression of Louise, the silly sweetness of Sue, the swagger of Tom, the bland amiability of Paul, teachers all in a system that has squeezed them dry, works well as we travel on a tour with Tobias.
Emily, the problem pupil trying to make a difference through peaceful protest, and the youngster who nurtures his Tamagotchi (the virtual pet which was all the rage back then), embody the children the comprehensive tries to nurture, but times are tough.
I loved the first half of this 75 minute piece, with surprising explosions of movement, and some barbed reflection on an election result we felt was so hopeful (it even led two of the teachers into frantic coitus spurred by the defeat of one Michael Denzil Xavier Portillo).
The comedy aspects flow with ease, and for those of us there back in the 90s we feel all the good and bad of those times coming back. Coursebooks at least fifteen years old. Grass growing through the brickwork. Take That splitting up. The UK winning Eurovision (“Katrina and the Waves. That song is a classic.”).
What doesn’t work so well, for me, is the attack on one of the teachers which leaves her bloody and confused, eventually spiralling out of control dressed as Ginger Spice – but saved by the castle of Camelot.
Camelot, of course, are the company behind the National Lottery. I don’t know if this is significant. We do hear about how the investment in education eventually imploded into school-academies sending begging letters to parents for bare necessities.
Pictures of the cast as children appear at the back of the set at strategic moments. Emily plays herself, it seems, with her own name: did she really set fire to another child’s eyebrows?
Education, Education, Education is an interesting play in which recorded music is essential, but it lacks the satirical bite I was hoping for. The ensemble are all exceptionally good, and the characters believable to anyone who had to be at school in those days.
Even the staff-room bickering mirrors the all-out fighting in Year 10 (5th year in my day, I think), and if you stretch a point, the sparring in Parliament which Tobias remarked upon as people “having to sit opposite each other”.
The music is “right on time” (to clumsily reference the Black Box song), and a nod to the hugely popular film Titanic is hilarious. I wanted more of the physical shenanigans, personally, but this is definitely worth a look, if only to celebrate the art of creative collaboration.
Education, Education, Education continues at Trafalgar Studios until 29 June. Photo credits James Bullimore and The Other Richard.