Writer: Helen Monks and Matt Woodhead
Director: Matt Woodhead
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Fears about radicalisation in England’s schools has been a major concern in the last few years as stories of young British Muslims joining terrorist organisations were stoked by the press while the Trojan Horse letter invoking a conspiracy at the heart of Birmingham’s school system was made public. Helen Monks and Matt Woodhead’s touring production, arriving for a brief run at the Battersea Arts Centre, passionately suggests that concerns about extremism were not only overplayed by entirely fabricated, and if a conspiracy existed anywhere it was within the British Government.
In just a few years a leading Birmingham School had entirely reinvented itself with a high GSSE pass rate and pupils entering respectable careers later in life. Yet, a letter suggesting a network of Pakistani-Muslim Governors acting to change the curriculum in local schools brought the full force of education system down on the pupils, teachers and local councillors whose lives were irreparably damaged by years of bungled investigation and unsubstantiated mudslinging.
Using interviews with many of the people affected by the events depicted, Trojan Horse combines individual monologue in a multi-perspective format with some dramatically constructed scenes to create a detailed narrative history of the unfolding crisis in Birmingham’s schools. It subdivides into 18 scenes over 75-minutes to present a damning picture of a Government investigation used as a political tool while emphasising the human cost to those caught-up in the process.
Monks and Woodhead are relentless in their condemnation, piling on the evidence of incompetence, pre-determination and deliberate misrepresentation of the facts to show the lasting damage done to the reputation of the British Muslim community. Former Education Secretary Michael Gove is show again and again to be at the centre of events, appointing personal friends to lead enquiries, subtly manipulating the meaning of reports to ensure charges are brought against teachers and leaking crucial documents when he’s removed from office.
The show is exhausting and, at times, horrifying to observe, but it’s hard not to be swept up in the ferocity of the argument it is making and its determined status as an as an angry piece of political theatre. The multiple viewpoints offer a broad and interesting approach while the rapid scene changes can occasionally make the motivations of individuals hard to keep track of, but there is a scholarly breadth that comes alive in its transition to theatre.
The rotating desks, use of microphones and strobing to convey the carnage of the press pack and chapter headings make good use of a small space, helping to suggest, many locations. Yet some of the show’s attempts to show context are a little half-hearted; there’s a throwaway LGBT+ subplot that could feel more relevant, while the mixed homelife of the same pupil with a difficult parental relationship and her own sense of isolation, though well performed, feel almost tangential to the factual accounts of the investigation and its outcomes. The levels of local deprivation where most pupils were in receipt of free school meals yet made substantial academic achievements is a political point to better emphasise to really understand the wider tragedy as well as the personal ones.
Performers Komal Amin, Mustafa Chaudhry, Gurkiran Kaur, Qasim Mahmood and Keshini Misha are all enthusiastic and engaging, if occasionally a little shouty, conveying a variety of roles each playing one of the core protagonists. Trojan Horse will certainly make you very angry at the ways in which innocent people are manipulated an destroyed for political ends, but take comfort in knowing that this showing is heading to two places it really needs to be seen, the suburb containing the original school where it can help to restore lost reputations and the Houses of Parliament who might finally understand how their decisions affect the lives of innocent people.
Runs Until: 16 November 2019 | Image: Contributed