Education, Education, Education – Royal and Derngate, Northampton

Writer: The Wardrobe Ensemble

Directors: Jesse Jones and Helena Middleton

Reviewer: Maggie Constable

After its premiere this August at the Edinburgh’s Festival Fringe, Education, Education, Education, winner of ‘Fringe First Award’ and successful crowd-pleaser, is being performed this week by The Wardrobe Ensemble at the Royal and Derngate, the theatre having been co-producer in the show. This is part of the now acclaimed ‘Made in Northampton’ season.

We are transported to the famous election victory of Tony Blair’s New Labour in May 1997. Katrina and the Waves have just won Eurovision with Love Shine a Light, rather aptly. All seems right with the world … or does it? Down in the nearby Wordsworth Comprehensive things are very different. Poor Miss Belltop-Doyle, who suffers for her belief in holistic education, just cannot gain control of her ‘bubbly’ drama group just as Mr Pashley has been given the onerous task (which he learns to rather enjoy) of keeping an eye on a Tamagotchi confiscated from a youngster. Meanwhile, school governors and other special guests are due to appear at the Year 11 Leavers Assembly today – the assembly which Miss Belltop-Doyle is supposedly organising. Tobias, the recently-arrived specialist German language assistant, looks on bemused  – nay – amused. Things can only get better, as the song says, or maybe not? These are the early moments of Blair’s new dawn with all that it entails: academy schools, huge budgets and so much more. We are taken on a journey which allows us to reflect upon just how much state education has changed/been changed in the last 20years. Plenty with which to grapple!

The characters, including the feisty but bright student, Emily Greenslade, and the kindly, well-meaning but slightly ineffectual Head, Hugh Mills, are beautifully described and utterly believable.

Tom England, in the role of Hugh Mills, gives us the liberal (not politically, however), caring but indecisive Headteacher that everyone loves but who nobody takes very seriously or even listens to and he does so to a tee. Ben Vardy performs the role of P.E teacher and Tamagotchi-holder Mr Pashley, who seems to spend his days asking the rest of the staff if they want to go to the pub later and who is always turned down. Vardy gets the balance between the sporty go-getter and the Tamagotchi-addicted and child-like man-boy just right. Kerry Lovell, as Louise Turner is nothing short of brilliant. She is the once ingénue now cynical but still passionate teacher who appears to be gunning, almost literally, for everyone. Nobody messes with her! A very convincing and diverting portrayal. Jesse Meadows brings us the hapless Sue Belltop-Doyle and is fairly convincing in the part, at least at the beginning of the play. Her drama lesson has to be seen to be believed. Meadows certainly shows Sue’s utter inner turmoil at her lack of class control but her naïve self-belief. And then there is Emily Greenslade who, funnily enough, portrays with true style one Emily Greenslade, the intelligent but disaffected and disturbed young woman who has got it in for Mr Paul Macintyre. Actor Greg Shewring delivers this latter character with understated skill. Some droll lines too. MacIntyre will not let Emily attend the school trip, as he had promised, and she will have her revenge on him, as much as she manages to ‘floor’ Miss Belltop-Doyle (although with much remorse later). McIntyre’s fight over the Tamagotchi with Mr Pashley is a hilarious scene.

Tobias also acts as a narrator to the piece and James Newton, who plays the part, has such wonderful comic timing and superb deadpan delivery during these quasi-Greek-chorus moments that the audience is in stitches. Indeed, comic timing and pace are the essence of the show and all actors deliver their lines with speed and panache. Most actors take on a secondary rôle, often that of a student, and move between the rôles with ease. It is only a shame that sometimes the speedily-delivered lines cannot be heard distinctly, but luckily there are sub-titles to the side for much of the play.

The play explores, to some extent, what we are taught and the rationale behind it, but more than anything this is a satirical and sassy look at state schools in the late 90s, after the Labour landslide, and just what that meant in reality. Along with the great humour there are veritable moments of poignancy and time to reflect, albeit lightly, upon the real issues that affected state education from 1997 onwards, issues which still haunt us now.

This was the Britpop era with a whole range of snappy, classy new bands and the music throughout the play fantastically depicts this time: songs are cleverly interspersed with, and used as backing to, the action. There are of course other references such as the Teletubbies and all these references add to the late 90s feeling.

The publicity uses the adjective ‘irreverent’ for Education, Education, Education and that is so apposite. The sharp direction by Jesse Jones and Helena Middleton, aided by the witty and nifty writing, makes this an evening’s entertainment that will leave its audience buzzing, laughing and still talking about the play long after it has finished. Miss it at your peril

Runs until 14 October 2017 | Image: The Other Richard

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Irreverent fun

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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