Review: Dismissed (Soho Upstairs)

The Upsetters bring Daniel Rusteau’s debut play Dismissed to Soho Theatre’s Upstairs stage, which takes us into the heart of a failing school in East London.

There”s been a stabbing, and tensions are high, so when teacher Ashley (Georgia-Mae Myers)’s favourite pupil Tyler gets himself in bother, things move quickly under the iron fist of headteacher Susan (Rebecca Crankshaw).

With just five characters and a stage sparsely furnished with desks and chairs that are moved and removed with each scene change, the challenge of bringing a busy school to life is ably met by physical vignettes and movement.

Curiously, Ashley seems the least clued up and most idealistic of the four teachers. Her way of being kind may not be the wisest or the easiest. It’s not a stretch to see her lost to the profession within a couple of years.

Production photo for Dismissed

Jonathan (Jon McGuinness) is far more interested in Sudoku and avoiding his wife’s vegetarian lunches; Dennis (Corey Montague-Sholay) is career-minded but pragmatic; and Susan, though she appears steely, reveals a career punctuated by student violence and funerals.

Into this story are woven the boys in the school: mostly black, often show-offs, given to making mistakes. There’s a gang culture and a power play which causes a serious injury early on and worse by the end.

Tyler’s mum (Bonnie Baddoo) is played rough and ready, but a tigress when it comes to the boys she raises with her own brand of love and dry wit. Together with Crankshaw’s Susan, these were the two performances that stood out for me.

Dismissed is a 75-minute exploration of an important subject of how young Black men in particular seek out violence to achieve adoration and recognition, but it isn’t quite long enough to bring out all the themes.

Production photo for Dismissed

I did recognise that these people were doing their best in a world which seems on one side, bleak and vicious, and the other, full of misunderstanding and bad breaks.

Jonathan asserts that his childhood was tough, but as a white man, his lived experience has to be different to his charges. And a recurring theme of Susan’s extracurricular music lessons feels obvious and a bit lazy – even council house kids could learn an instrument.

As Myers’s Ashley develops, it becomes clear she is just as much a victim of the perceived rules and assumptions as anyone else, even displaying her own unconscious bias against her superiors.

It’s a tricky role that mainly comes off, but I found myself frustrated with her at times and feeling bad for her as she makes her own bad choices. But there are no easy answers offered in Dismissed, nor should there be.

Dismissed, directed by Nikhil Vyas with set design by Amanda Ranasawmy, lighting by Laura Howard and sound by Mwen, runs at Soho Theatre until 3 Jun: tickets here.