Touring – reviewed at Bristol Old Vic
There are nights at the theatre where you feel the ideas being presented on stage are deliberately opaque, asking its audience to wade through treacle to a conclusion they never have any hope of comprehending. And then there are works that feel like ‘wow’ this is created specifically with me in mind. If we were playing A Desert Island of theatre than Wardrobe Ensemble’s Education, Education, Education would be what I would ask for. It ticks all the boxes I most love when I go to see a piece of theatre, salient political points and riotous knockabout comedy with a banging soundtrack that leaves you smiling in a way only a belter of a night out can have.
I previously raved about 1972: A Future Of Sex which seemed to be the conclusion of the first stage of the companies early career where promise turns into fully established accomplishment. Education confirms that: if anything it’s even better; more laughs, more anger, more inspired stagecraft. Admittedly I am the exact target audience, starting secondary school in the Autumn of 1997 a year after Gazza was a toe away from putting England into a European final and a few months after New Labour took power and a brighter tomorrow seemed like a very distinct possibility. So this work, that takes place in a secondary school the day after Blair won the polls feels like a distinct case of deja vu as Tamagotchis, shag bands and Gina and The Waves all get shout outs/
The laughs keep on coming in a tightly condensed 70 minutes that is like the best of Teachers in the Andrew Lincoln days before it nosedived spectacularly. So we see furtive bunk up’s, aborted interactive lessons, a staffroom punch up and a bouncy castle that- like Chekhov’s gun- is eventually designed to come into play. Funny bones are in the DNA of the Wardrobe, each joke lands with full guffaw force. Earning more than his fair share of these is James Newton’s dry German TA Tobias, dropping each zinger in full deadpan mode that confirms his place as the foremost theatrical farceur in the city.
The wreaths can be shared though for this is an ensemble where every member comes to the fore and ensures gold across the board. Tom England as genial headteacher Hugh and Kerry Lovell as a strict disciplinarian destined to get to the top, find themselves at polar opposites in regards to how to deal with a student involved in a violent altercation and the writing as their ideologies are pushed against each other becomes as rich as the debates David Hare inserted into his classic state of the nation trilogy almost 30 years ago. Both sides have valid points, there are no black and white only compromised shades of grey and it shows what a heroic profession teaching really is.
It takes all sorts to provide an education and Jesse Meadows quirky eccentric English teacher stands at the heart of the issue. Not suited to the box ticking of exams but dedicated to ensuring a genuine love of learning into her students, it asks, like Alan Bennett does previously with Hector in his wonderful The History Boys, whether a teachers role is in ensuring students get to tick all the exam requirements or really make a difference. Is she letting them down by not preparing them sufficiently for the exams that will define their future even if she is genuinely making them fall in love with their subject? Surely she is the kind of teacher we should be asking for than Greg Shewring’s bored disinterested Paul who sets off a chain of events when he bans Emily Greenslade’s unruly student from the school trip to York. Meanwhile, Ben Vardy’s PE teacher hopelessly tries to provide supply for French while ensuring his students Tamagotchi remains alive until the end of the day.
So much is crammed into 70 minutes yet each is given time to breathe in Bea Roberts sensitive dramaturgy and in the propulsive production co-directed by Jesse Jones and Helena Middleton. All the stories converge into a climax that is both heartwarming and furious at a government that is cutting funding drastically and removing love of learning in order to tick boxes. The company transition perfectly from studios into the cities main house and it was heartening to hear that tickets as part of their homecoming were almost sold out. With a blue plaque unveiled at the theatre this week and a recent announcement that they will become a Complicite associate company the future looks to be as bright as their past has been. I don’t know what the next steps will be but I know I will follow them anywhere. If theatre forges allegiances the way that football does then I know the Wardrobe Ensemble are, for better and worse, my team. This is a championship winning work.