Writer: E. R. Braithwaite
Adaptor: Ayub Khan-Din
Co-Directors: Gwenda Hughes and Tom Saunders
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
Ricardo Braithwaite is a man who makes those around him better people. After leaving the RAF as a bona fide, Spitfire-flying war hero, the colour of his skin slams doors in his face when he tries to get a job as an engineer and he is forced to take a job in a tough Birmingham school. His predecessor simply walks out, unable to cope in a school that tries to empower pupils through a school council, has banned corporal punishment and, according to the progressive headmaster, has no rules.
How can Braithwaite hope to hold his own? He has never studied teaching, has no experience. And at first it seems he won’t – he is highly educated and cultured man to whom his pupils seem little more than savages. They lack respect for themselves and others and are openly disobedient, even rebellious, having been consistently let down by adults. But even as he is ready to give up, the headteacher convinces him of his own worth and he changes his approach – pupils will be treated as adults, as individuals, and afforded respect by Braithwaite, changing the usual teacher-pupil relationship. Little by little, even the most recalcitrant (including his cynical colleague, Weston) are won over by his sincerity. Meanwhile, another colleague, Gillian Blanchard, falls for the handsome Braithwaite – can their budding, mixed-race relationship survive the overt racism that Braithwaite experiences every day?
This production is based on the 1959 novel of the same name. Relocated to post-war Birmingham, Ayub Khan-Din’s adaptation features twelve members of The Young REP playing the parts of Braithwaite’s class who more than hold their own alongside a professional cast on the huge main house stage.
Central to the story is the relationship between Braithwaite (played by Youth Theatre Director, Philip Morris) and the members of his class, chiefly troublemakers Denham (Charlie Mills) and Monica Page (Eden Peppercorn). Mills, Peppercorn and the rest of the young cast are believable as his troubled class. Morris brings the right amount of sincerity and gravitas to the rôle of Brathwaite. Co-Directors Gwenda Hughes and Tom Saunders just about stop the whole from becoming excessively sentimental, assisted by comic turns from Polly Lister’s no-nonsense Domestic Science teacher, Clinty and Matt Crosby’s initially cynical Weston. Indeed, Crosby makes the transformation of Weston, as he begins to appreciate that the pupils might be worthy of his time, just as heart-warming as that of Braithwaite’s class. Andrew Pollard’s Florian, the headmaster who has belief both in Braithwaite but also in the innate goodness of his charges, is earnestly authoritative. The awkwardness of a first romance and the difficulties caused by crossing racial boundaries in post-war Birmingham is brought to believable life by Jessica Watts’ Blanchard.
Supporting the flow of the action is Michael Holt’s multi-levelled set that moves us between locations within the school with ease. Projections are used effectively to move us out of its precincts, for example, when the class visits the museum or at the moving funeral of one of the parents.
This is a simple story, sincerely told. Its very simplicity does lead to some of the adult rôles becoming a touch two-dimensional and there are a few stumbles along the way. One could argue that it glosses over some aspects of the ugly racism from which Braithwaite suffers. Nevertheless, it is a hard heart indeed that can resist being moved as the play moves to its dénouement when Braithwaite finally feels valued and is forced to choose between taking up his dream engineering job and remaining at Greenslade School.
Runs until 6 May 2017 | Image: Graeme Braidwood