Writer: E R Braithwaite
Director: Mark Babych
Reviewer: Sue Dixon
To Sir, With Love will be remembered by most as the 1967 film with Sydney Poitier and its memorable theme tune, sung by Lulu.
This world premiere stage production is a co-production between the Touring Consortium and The Royal and Derngate and will tour the country following this brilliant opening night. It has been adapted by Ayub Khan Din, who also wrote East is East. To Sir, With Love is based on the real-life events in an ex-RAF fighter pilot’s life; Ricky Braithwaite. On his arrival in London in 1948 he is unsuccessful in securing a post in electronic engineering, for which he is more than qualified, due to the colour of his skin. The whole play is a constant reminder of the deep and widespread racial discrimination at the time. He takes on the only job he can get which sees him reluctantly teaching in a tough East End secondary school.
Ansu Kabia takes on the mantle of Ricky, who under the kind, brave and enlightened leadership of the head teacher Florian, played magnificently by Matthew Kelly, transforms the turbulent, damaging attitudes of the pupils he is faced with. The opening set of a 1940s school room, is complete with room-wide, (drop down) blackboards and lift up desks, the latter used for bad behaviour effect very well by the unruly teenagers. It is then slickly transformed, by well-crafted choreography, to serve as the staffroom and occasional outdoor scenes. Burnt out, blitz torn buildings high above the school set are a constant reminder of the era, but also of the deprived lives the pupils lead. With interspersed songs from the era throughout the play, the mood and setting is easily believed.
Ansu Kabia plays the elegant Braithwaite with thoughtful and developing ease. He takes his character on a moving and recognisable journey; from anger and bewilderment when first faced with the ‘wild’ behaviour of his students to a more introspective, soul searching stance. The second half is definitely more emotionally powerful than the first. Matthew Kelly has a well-earned reputation as a versatile, much acclaimed actor. He certainly brings a gravitas to the whole piece. He is warm and wonderful as the wise and radical head teacher of his time, as he clearly and gently stands firm to his philosophies of education and guides Braithwaite to find his way as a teacher. There is so much resonance to current educational debate it is quite poignant to make this comparison. Both are supported by an immensely talented cast; the overtly racist and outrageous Weston, played by Paul Kemp, no nonsense domestic science teacher Clinty played by a sparkling Nicola Reynolds and the wonderful young cast of the class. A particular mention must go to Harriet Ballard as Monica for delivering her cheeky lines with such wit and great comic timing; and to Mykola Allen as Denham for his very well executed boxing scene.
A very impressive opening night to what is sure to be a highly successful tour. And just as the evening couldn’t get any better there was a final curtain call by Matthew Kelly, who welcomed the writer of the original book, E.R. Braithwaite himself.to the stage. Now a very old man, he made the journey all the way from New York to Northampton for this opening night. The audience erupted in long and appreciative applause.
Most certainly a must see – although E R Braithwaite isn’t likely to be at every performance in person!
Runs until Sat 28 September 2013
Picture until: Nobby Clark