Education, Education, Education: then, a nineties political mantra, now a nostalgia-fest of nineties music, Tamagotchis, and timely political poignancy in a riotously funny and reflective piece of theatre from, Bristol-based, The Wardrobe Ensemble. Putting politics in the comprehensive, the play is a charming charge through the hopeful optimism of teachers and children alike in the aftermath of Tony Blair’s election, as well as the changes and truths that only came with time.
Company member Jesse Meadows talks politics, the creative process, and 90s musical jams with The Reviews Hub’s Leah Tozer.
The play is the perfect mix of 90s nostalgia, political poignancy, and feel-good fun, so what’s it like to perform night after night? “It’s as important to us that people have a good time and a good night out at the theatre! Those points that we’re hitting that make people go, ‘oh God!’, those poignant moments, we can reach people through the funny, and through making them laugh”, Jesse says.
It’s also a period piece, and one that’s “very much set in the nineties and that’s very fun to play with”. With everything from Cool Britannia to Britpop, Tamagotchis to Take That, “all the references we make are funny now because they’re set in this world of fake nostalgia”, and it’s fun to “take people on that memory journey with us”. Twenty years is a lifetime in politics and pop culture. “We thought a lot about 1997. We were really interested in the hope and positivity, the promise and excitement”, and there are representations of that in the play: “We put up Union Jack flags everywhere because that was really ‘in’, just think of Geri in the Union Jack dress! But now, you put Union Jacks up and people cringe. Pride for your country has just totally flipped. It feels like a divided country now, whereas then it felt like coming together.”
While politics polarise, pop culture has the power to unite: In light of the election the teachers must remain politically impartial in all classes, but, in the words of hapless headteacher Hugh, ‘we did win Eurovision, so talk about that as much as you wish’, and it’s something Jesse echoes, “things like winning the Eurovision Song Contest, these are the things that unite us as a country”.
This playful approach to politics is also found in their creative process, despite the divisive events that were going on whilst devising Education, Education, Education, Jesse explains. “Over the year or so that we were devising and writing and playing around with ideas, the way we approached the show really shifted. We went away for a week of writing and the General Election happened! We all watched it together and then we were like, ‘oh right, what’s the play going to be now?!’ It forced us to think about things in a different way, and inevitably had an impact on what you see on stage because those were the things we were talking about.”
With a script that, ingeniously, likens Socrates to the Spice Girls, where do their ideas originate? “At the beginning, it’s just about playing, playing, playing, with a base of research, be that politics or the Labour Party, and it’s always collaborative”. All ideas are documented, some are developed, and even the simplest of drama acts can be the foundation of the most fantastically-formed characters: “I did an exercise where we all decided on a character and did a day in the life. That was fairly early on in the process and those characters that people [picked], more or less all of them stuck and that’s who you see in the show.”
As well as witty words, the Wardrobe Ensemble uses a lot of movement, somewhat from their backgrounds in the ensemble-based Bristol Old Vic Young Company, but also because of “belief that words aren’t always the best way to say what you want to say. The challenges of creating chaos are really exciting, and so are the constraints we put on ourselves. For example, there are two doors, two tables, and two chairs in this piece: if these are the props, what can we create with them?” A chaotic musical march through the school corridors is what.
And it’s those all-too-familiar comprehensive corridors that make the performance feel so close, but also so fixed to the company. “Most people have been to school, so that’s partly what people connect to when they watch it, their own school experiences. But we are also the children of that time, and it was really important for us that the theatre-makers come through. So it’s our school photos that are projected when we’re onstage playing a child because we wanted that connection. When we’re playing students we’re using our names. Placing ourselves in the play became really important to us.”
So what part did their own experiences play? “A lot of our experiences made it into the show, especially for our teacher characters. Ben [Vardy], who plays the P.E. teacher, is very much based on his P.E. teacher – he didn’t even change the name! The characteristics of these teachers represent the different sorts of teachers I think everybody probably had, so they’re an amalgamation of real-life teachers, but also that generic teacher.” Jesse’s character is the holistic, ever-hopeful but hopeless helper, one is the disciplinarian deputy, and another is the toy-taking tutor: it’s a cast of familiar faces, but none of them ever feel forced.
In order to reflect, familiarity needs a foreigner, and the company felt like it would be “a strong framing device for the audience to be lead by an outsider”. That outsider is a droll, German language assistant “who really came about because Jimmy [Newton] decided to be his German assistant who he had at school” during the day-in-the-life exercise, Jesse explains. “A lot of the themes we were talking about when we were making the show were about Britishness and our relationship with our history and what it really means to be British”, but through the eyes of “this German guy who had been brought closer to the UK through Blair’s pro-EU politics…the way we reflect on that from a post-Brexit world”.
Britishness is bittersweet. “A moment for me that feels very poignant and emotional is at the end when I’m sitting in the middle and I very much feel like I’m representing Britain, covered in blood in this Union Jack dress, and then everybody comes in as kids dancing for their future and all the hope and excitement that that time brought. It’s bittersweet. For me it represents twenty years ago and it also represents today. We were those kids filled with promise that benefitted from those politics and then it felt like the rug was pulled from under us. We have all these opinions and we can’t do anything with them, and it’s frustrating. It’s bittersweet because they’re going forward into this future where we know what’s going to happen but they didn’t at the time. The symbol of bloody Britain slumped in a chair crying at the end and then this child comforting her and saying ‘it’s going to be ok’ and giving her these headphones and basically saying ‘things can only get better!’”.
That moment is a poignant one politically and musically, as Jesse explains: “[Once] you see her with the headphones on, all of the songs are heard through that, and you see that this is the soundtrack of a generation. The overall feeling of all the music in the show is how powerful it is for transporting you somewhere else, the importance of music for young people, and, especially in the 90s with Britpop, the relationship between music and politics. They complement each other. “
As well as the election anthem Things Can Only Get Better, which “wrote itself into the play”, how did they create such an iconic soundtrack? “Along with movement and the set, the sound is an important part of creating this world. We worked with a sound designer [Ben Grant] on this show for the first time to work out the best way of putting the audience into that place, and what songs could we use to transport them. A lot of the songs are very iconic, and some of the songs are very nostalgic and on the nose and going to make you have all the feels.”
“And they’re really fun! We want the show to be just as entertaining as it is poignant. We think a lot about juxtaposing certain moments to make a particular point or to make something feel much more poignant, and we used the music to play around with that. We made the playlist for the show before we made anything else, and we made lots of scenes without the music, and then we would just put on some music and play around. We were really realising the impact of the music on an audience, and what that does for a scene.” And, of course, not forgetting those original Tamagotchi sound effects.
Politics and pop culture, united and untied, Cool Britannia and Brexit: Britain has been through a lot, but we, and the Wardrobe Ensemble, believe that Things Can Only Get Better, and it begins with – you guessed it – Education, Education, Education.
Leah Tozer | Image: Graeme Braidwood