Thursday, 16 February 2017

Theatre review: School Play

Alex MacKeith's debut play is a comedy-drama that punctures a situation pressured to the point of breaking: School Play is set in the office of a primary school headteacher and looks at a crisis in education - in particular the almost surreally wrongheaded system in which state schools need to show their students improving if they don't want to lose the very resources that make improvement possible. Lara (Fola Evans-Akingbola) has had to put her teacher training on hold ever since her father got ill, but is keeping her hand in by working as secretary to headteacher Jo (Ann Ogbomo.) Jo's received the students' SATs results and they're decent but not good enough to get the school any additional money next year - and she's just found out they'll be expected to take on an extra 100 pupils as well.

The catalyst to the two women's frustrations is Tom (Oliver Dench,) a private tutor who's been hired to give a couple of extra lessons to bump up the SATs class' results, but who's been too distracted by wanting to be Robin Williams in Dead Poets' Society to actually get round to it.

Much to her embarrassment in the morning, Lara had a one-night stand with Tom last night, and now he's come into the school despite not having any classes scheduled, to spend time with her in the hope that it turns into something more. He becomes another irritant to Jo, who's also got the day-to-day problems of the school to deal with (although a subplot about her being in the middle of a divorce is over-egging it a bit; it's not needed to show how overwhelmed she is, and there's no opportunity to actually develop it anyway.)

But in almost everything else this is a real hit, Dench is very funny as the deluded Tom, whose inability to take a hint is first played for laughs then demonstrates how out of touch he is; a great job by designer Anna Reid as well on a costume that signals him as a ridiculous posho with hipster aspirations as soon as he walks in (although just because you can wear trousers that tight doesn't mean you should - it's just showing off.) In Evans-Akingbola's professional debut she gives quietly confident and appealing support to Ogbomo's blazing Jo, who gives us every facet of the headteacher who has to be someone different depending on who she's dealing with, and someone else again in private.

For the most part MacKeith does a great job of integrating the play's clear political motivation into the story, although when things finally erupt between Jo and Tom the scene does go round in circles a bit and feel as if we're being lectured. But generally Charlie Parham's production has a pace that speeds us through the day's various smaller and larger catastrophes, and while School Play is viciously critical of a system in which reducing children to statistics is the only way to give them a chance, it also maintains an almost awe-struck appreciation for the people with the genuine enthusiasm to do an impossible job.

School Play by Alex MacKeith is booking until the 25th of February at Southwark Playhouse's Little Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Guy Bell.

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