Friday, 11 September 2015

Theatre review: Future Conditional

To herald the Old Vic's new era with a heterosexual Artistic Director at the helm, it's had a bit of a facelift: There's a new, simpler logo without the coat of arms that screamed "heritage theatre," while the black-and-white photos of century-old productions have been hidden away at the top of the stairs, and above the entrance to the stalls a neon sign says "Dare always dare." Why a theatre would choose "they're always there" in an Irish accent as its motto is anyone's guess, but the message that things will be different under Matthew Warchus extends to the first show he's programmed - a new British play would have been unheard of in Dame Kev's day. And to counteract the "old" in the venue's name, it's a play with a young cast - unusually in a world where 30-year-olds routinely play teenagers, it's even a show where many of the actors are actually playing characters older than themselves.

Tamsin Oglesby's Future Conditional is about education in Britain, principally about how successive governments' meddling has left an endless variety of different school types, and a huge difference in educational standards depending on factors like class, money and location.


Although there's three storylines that run through the play it initially feels a bit like a sketch show, until we've got used to who everyone is: One strand is set in a meeting room where a government think-tank discusses ways of improving schools. Another sees the mothers of primary school children jumping through hoops, and sacrificing some of their principles, to get their kids into a decent secondary school.


The children themselves are all invisible except for one: Alia (Nikki Patel) arrived in the UK aged 11 as a refugee from Pakistan. She flourishes, and is chosen as a young adviser to the think-tank. We also get to see scenes of Alia in class with Mr Crane (Rob Brydon,) the teacher who inspired her, but who sometimes struggles to maintain his own idealism in the face of parents who think they know his job better than he does.


We already knew Warchus was a good director, but the jury's still out on how he'll be at programming shows: He proves the former again here in a production that's energetic and lively, sometimes in defiance of the problematic material. (Although he does ladle on so much cheese at the end that if you're lactose intolerant you might want to leave early.) He's also assembled a strong cast, and though the sheer variety of the parents on the school run seems implausible at least it helps them all stand out: Lucy Briggs-Owen is likeably scatty as Hettie, who's been receiving anonymous threats over her plans to send her daughter to a private school. Sarah's (Peta Cornish) marriage is breaking down, or is it? The gossip is that David (Matthew Aubrey) only moved out so he could get a flat in a different postcode, and their son could qualify for a better school. Meanwhile Natalie Klamar's Suzy is an idealist who wants the mothers to all send their children to local schools, but whose lack of a killer instinct will backfire.


Although this strand does have some good moments, it falls prey to the same problem that plagues all of them: It's a subject matter that invites many different opinions, and Oglesby constantly falls into the trap of telling not showing, essentially staging a number of discussions with no real solution. Inevitably this is especially an issue in the scenes with the think-tank, whose six members bat ideas around without establishing particularly distinctive characters, and only really come to life when Eton-educated Oliver (Joshua McGuire) and comprehensive-educated Bill (Brian Vernel) get into a class battle over a tin of flapjacks.


Future Conditional isn't terrible, but it's all over the place, as any play that attempts to cover such a broad subject will often be. It's broadly comic in tone, and those jokes that land are very good, but they're outnumbered by the ones that fall flat. It all too frequently descends into a dull statement of opposing views, and its large cast of characters don't get the chance to become more than archetypes. I can see why it ticks almost all the boxes that would signal Warchus as bringing in a new, fresher era to the Old Vic; unfortunately the box it doesn't tick is the one that would make it a strong, memorable debut to the season.

Future Conditional by Tamsin Oglesby is booking until the 3rd of October at the Old Vic.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

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