Writer: Jonathan Lewis
Director: Damian Cruden
Designer: Natasha Bertram
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Actor/writer Jonathan Lewis’ new play, premiering at York’s Theatre Royal, takes a well-informed and shrewdly aimed shot at the dangerous absurdity of the present education system, especially in terms of tests and examinations. In schools where, in Ofsted terms, “good” is the new average and “satisfactory” has done a smart about turn to mean unsatisfactory, clever pupils (and their parents) are disappointed with A grades – why not A*? And for many people exam success has become the “be all and end all” not only of education but of life. Since, even among the middle-class intelligentsia, not everyone can get an A*, emotional breakdown and sharp practice are inevitable.
Lewis skewers his targets most effectively, has an ear for sharply convincing dialogue and progressively ratchets up the tension and ignites the combustible relationships. Where he is less successful is in relating its material to the nation in general. The family in The Be All and End All are untypical in the moral dilemma they face because they have so much more ability to influence results: most legitimately (though to be frowned on by purists) by their own academic input, more dubiously by the power of money and, most insidiously, by influence in high places.
Mark is a politician, a member of the Government. Charlotte, his wife, has a high-ranking position in publishing. Tom, their son, is very clever, but lacking intellectual confidence and prone to gaffes. The fact that his GCSEs split evenly into five A*s and five As still troubles Mark. Frida, his girlfriend, much less privileged but effortlessly and unpretentiously academic, got the full set. Now it’s ‘A’ Level time and Tom needs to put stars on those As to get into Cambridge.
An opportunity to cheat presents itself (or did Mark engineer it?). The production’s strapline is “Where would YOU draw the line?” – very apposite, but the problem with turning that moral conundrum back to the audience is that for most of us opportunities for bending the rules are on a much less grand scale.
Initially, the family, plus Frida, are supposed to be relaxing at the weekend, except that no one, least of all parents, can relax at ‘A’ Level time. It’s all very brittle, with jibes, witticisms and point scoring alternating with an extended analysis of examination success. These are not people it is easy to sympathise with or identify with, except for the apparently well-balanced Frida.
In the much shorter, more dynamic second half the essential question of where to draw the line divides Mark and Charlotte, but also opens up assorted cans of worms. The play loses its precise focus, but gains open conflict with words, actions and, ultimately, blows. Jonathan Lewis is not quite in the league of the great masters of self-lacerating families, but this certainly grips the attention.
Jonathan Guy Lewis (Mark) and Imogen Stubbs (Charlotte) play the surface stylishly to begin with, she the first to display humanity: later on, a beautifully played phone call with her bosses gives her a hinterland Mark lacks. It’s difficult to believe he is someone in the running for one of the Great Offices of State, except that Lewis wriggles and lies, blusters and calls in favours, to the manner born.
Mark Whitchurch’s Mark, defensively combative towards his odious father, only relaxed with Frida, convincingly calls the shots in his final father-destroying scene (Greek tragedy anyone?), and, despite the moral ambiguity of some of the character’s decisions, Robyn Cara’s perfectly judged performance draws sympathy for Frida as for no other character.
Natasha Bertram sets the action in comfortable luxury, those full-length cupboards and fridges clearly belonging to people who have a choice what to have for tea, and Damien Cruden has fun making a mess of it all in Act 2.
Runs until 19 May 2018 | Image: Anthony Robling