It’s Friday, 2nd May 1997. The teachers of a British comprehensive school are jubilant with optimism, fuelled by the prospect of a newly-elected Labour government injecting the education system with some much-needed cash. A beaming headmaster, Hugh Mills (Tom England), shows newbie assistant teacher from Germany, Tobias (James Newton) around his school, the immense ability of its students proudly on display. Everyone should be in a celebratory mood.
Yet all is not well. As Tobias reveals to the audience in a humour-filled opening monologue, behind the façade of a school with a bright future, lies a community with some deeply rooted problems. The students are disruptive, their misbehaviour a result of boredom and discontent with their lives. The teachers are divided between those who wish to entertain and nurture the students with compassion and unconventional teaching methods, and those who emphasise discipline to maintain order and safety.
As the play unfolds, these contradictions are exposed, with as much wit and melodrama as an 80-minute production can muster. The frequent use of sound effects and 90s music soundbites immerses the audience in the zeitgeist of the times, and is a crucial aspect of the play’s comedic effect. The characters are relatable yet unique, drawing on familiar personality types but developing deeper traits as the narrative progresses.
The best example of this is Emily Greenslade (played by a woman of the same name). An intelligent but frustrated pupil, she is denied the chance to go on the York trip due to her past misdemeanours. Rather than taking her anger out on other pupils as one might expect, she instead organises a petition to get teacher Paul McIntyre (Greg Shewring) to allow her on the trip. This shows that far from being a lost cause as one might assume, she has the potential to turn her life around. Paul says in Emily’s school report that she ‘must try harder’. But for Tobias, this is a misdiagnosis. Emily’s problem was not a lack of effort, but a lack of purpose: she didn’t know what life at school was for. She felt frustrated by all the expectations placed upon her by her teachers, her friends and family. What she needed to do was ask herself what she wanted, and work to achieve it on her own terms.
However, Education, Education, Education is more than a comedy with some social commentary added in for good measure. The story ends up asking some profound questions about what schools are really for. The capacity for lives to be improved via political and institutional change is questioned. As an omnipotent narrator, Tobias reveals that after the school’s Blair-era cash injection, the money will eventually run dry and the school will have to close. For the most part, the optimism felt by all the teachers at the play’s exposition will not come to fruition in the long term.
To its credit, Education, Education, Education isn’t partisan in its political analysis. The point isn’t whether Blair’s education reforms were right or not, but that grandiose ideologies imposed from above cannot truly help students – regardless of the politicians or ideologies in question. Tobias tries to help Emily by speaking openly to her, not by setting her targets or assessment objectives. And in doing so, he reveals the lack of humanity and understanding so prevalent in schools throughout the country.
Overall, the play is bombastic, rip-tickling fun. The relatively short running time allows for fast-paced, sharp scenes, which are creative in their use of theatrical devices. Tobias is the standout character, with his deadpan humour delivered in a strong German accent. As the only cast member to break the fourth wall, you quickly fall in love with this blunt and acerbic young man. Explicitly inspired by Socrates, he asks questions of everything and everyone. His love of Take That and other 90s hits strengthens the play’s setting, but the trap of becoming a bombardment of nostalgia is avoided.
Perhaps the only shortcoming of Education, Education, Education is the looseness of the plot. The narrative take a while to get going and is at times incoherent. On occasion, I felt a bit lost and didn’t feel the story had a cohesive structure. But unless you’re an English Literature student, you probably won’t notice this. The slick execution of action-packed scenes and playful gags more than suffices for most. The play is both outrageous and purposeful, an increasingly rare combination nowadays, and well worth watching.
Verdict: 4 STARS
The Wardrobe Ensemble’s Education, Education, Education has its final performance at the Exeter Northcott Theatre this evening. It will then continue its tour in Oxford, Eastleigh and Bristol.
– Owen Bell
FEATURED IMAGE PHOTO CREDIT: The Other Richard – https://exeternorthcott.co.uk/calendar/education-education-education/