The Old Vic Theatre, London – until 3 October 2015
GUEST CRITIC LUKE JONES (genuine 21st century school leaver..) ENJOYS THE MENTAL MUMS
With the news we’ve been having this week, a play about education policy may seem a little lightweight. For most of the first half it was. But the play pulls that neat Love Actually trick. Tedious for the most part, yet satisfying in the end. Little sense, little structure, little point, but plenty of character and warming comedy. Its arguments are highly worn, but it has wheeled out engaging and intriguing characters to tell them to us again.
Education is the primary concern of the play, although curiously there are no children. Instead the Tamsin Oglesby’s play gets lost in the fringes, separate side shows. We see only one character, who is an actual child, being educated. Nikki Patel, who, I am surprised to hear, makes her professional stage debut, gives a mightily strong and funny warmth to Alia, a young Pakistani girl breaking through to Oxbridge against the odds. A part that could be trite is witty and eventually moving.
The rest is extremely well played, peppered with top gags but largely directionless and inconsequential.
Three sections. Teacher, mums, education policy wonks.
The first, Rob Brydon’s bit, is fine. But he barely appears. Most of his scenes, despite being set in a bustling classroom full of rowdy, cheeky and undoubtedly (we’ll never know) witty school children, is played solo. Just him. Talking to student-sized gaps in the air. The little he is given echoes around the lonely stage, lacking dynamism in spite of the reasonable performance. Too late into the 2 hours he’s given dialogue, and it finally comes alive.
A diverse range of mental mum is fully on show. A playground plagued by desperate attempts to get the best school place for their kids. Most scream, one drinks, the other pretends to divorce her husband to move him out into a better catchment area. In this, Lucy Briggs-Owen, the stand-out star, gives a jolly masterclass as the frantic, posh, Scottish mum driven to obsession. Her performance , as usual, is detailed, hilarious and completely recognisable (sorry mum).
The final bunch – a gaggle of policy wonks, is the dullest. As it cuts between its three parts, with Alia peppered across a couple, I felt my shoulders droop and my eyes drift as I recognised their flipboard being wheeled on. The dialogue, save for a few jokes at the chubbier one’s expense, is entirely made up of cutouts from newspaper leaders, prit-sticked together into a make-your-own argument collage.
I would have thought Matthew Warchus’ first play as head honcho would have had more bite. It is a good comedy, with sharp, colourful design. But perhaps we needed something shocking. Not something which is on the one hand this and on the other hand that. Not something we nod along to and moments later forget.
Until 3rd October
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