School Play**** (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: February 7, 2017 in Theatre

school-play-e1486454621687This review was originally written for The Review Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

Hardly a day goes by without news of our failing public services hitting the headlines. The cumulative effects of spending cuts and successive governments playing Ping Pong with methods of operation have led to, for example, the education system being stretched to breaking point and Alex MacKeith’s topical new play is a report from the front line in the battle to cope.

In her office in a South London primary school, Head Teacher Jo (Ann Ogbomo) awaits her school’s SATs results nervously. She knows that success will bring rewards that will enhance her pupils’ educational opportunities and failure will threaten the school’s existence. Her assistant, the brisk and efficient Lara (Fola Evans-Akingbola), organises her schedule of meetings with staff, governors, Ofsted and disgruntled parents, while somewhere in there, she has to find time for the kids. It is little wonder that Jo’s private life is falling apart.

Anna Reid’s detailed set design is a place we all remember – plain, functional furniture, grey filing cabinets and walls splattered untidily with white boards, timetables and notices. At the beginning, the tone of Charlie Parham’s production resembles that of a fly-on-the-wall documentary, but then MacKeith makes a comedy out of a crisis with the arrival of Tom (Oliver Dench), a posh boy educated at Winchester and Oxford, who is working part-time at the school as a freelance tutor, before drifting into the legal profession. Dench milks the laughs skilfully as the bumbling Tom proves to be as inept at teaching as at wooing Lara.

For a time, the play seems unsettled and aimless, but, eventually, MacKeith homes in on his target and hits it with precision. Tom, at first a figure of fun, comes to represent all the well-meaning toffs who meddle in education without ever getting a grip on the consequences of their actions. His model could be the inspirational teacher in Dead Poets’ Society, but, when he develops methods by thinking outside the box, he forgets that this particular box has been sealed tight by the national curriculum and mandatory testing.

In the pivotal scene, Jo confronts Tom and the play now becomes a class act, made more so by Ogbomo’s memorable portrait of passion and dedication. Jo rails against a system that piles ever increasing pressures on her and her colleagues, while penalising society’s least privileged children. In the face of it all, her commitment is unflinching and it is reflected in the optimism of Lara, who is about to begin teacher training in spite of what she sees daily. After early meandering, eventually MacKeith’s play succeeds in both educating and entertaining us.

Performance date: 6 February 2017

Photo: Guy Bell

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