Walking through the corridor leading into the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, you quickly see that you are not in a theatre at all, but in a school. Colourful bags, little coats, and Disney themed lunch boxes are hung on either side of you and as you enter the ‘black box’ theatre. Only it no longer resembles a theatre at all: you have just walked into a junior school classroom, complete with bookcases, walk displays and colouring pens. This isn’t just naturalistic – it has become a classroom and the eight little children playing and chatting so normally as you enter add to this illusion.
Molly Davies has created an exciting work that deftly satirises the government’s attempt to reform education. The teachers in this play are hardworking, enthusiastic and caring; but they are constantly being buffeted and disturbed by ridiculous government schemes that care only about appearance, and not about real progress. Poor Ms Newcome, performed expertly by Ony Uhiara, eventually has to take time off for stress because of the failing system she is forced to apply to the classroom. ‘Badger Do Best’, a patronising and ludicrous system in which only Badger (a big cuddly toy) can tell off the children, descends into child-led chaotic classrooms in which it is impossible to install order. As a teacher myself, these anarchic scenes made me shudder as well as breathe a sigh of relief that I teach in a senior school where the worst the boys might do is forget their pen!
Amanda Abbington, a very familiar face from her roles in Mr Selfridge and Sherlock, is a very impressive Sali Rayner, the ‘experienced practitioner’ hired by the D of E to put this new system ‘Badger Do Best’ into action. Her excessive enthusiasm, her constant smile even when disciplining (though her version of detention is simply to sit on a ‘thinking toadstool’ for a few minutes), are superb stereotypes of how distorted ideas can become when commercially motivated. The stressed and confused Headmistresses, played by Nikki Amuka–Bird, is an excellent satire of the difference between managing a school and teaching a class; it is clear that this Headmistress has no idea how teaching really works. The teaching assistant, played with great comic timing by Julie Hesmondhalgh, shows us that a natural and truthful relationship certainly works best.
The eight children, adorable at times and then frankly demonic at others, were superb with highlights from the leader of the pack, Louie, played by Nancy Allsop. Unfortunately there was an illness in the cast about 15 minutes before the end of the performance so the rest of the show was cancelled and I have no idea how it ended. The audience left extremely disappointed, especially because the show is almost fully booked for the whole run. Sales of the script must have done well – we were all keen to know how it ended. This is a lively and exciting satire and I am interested to know whether the play concludes with a didactic message or whether the school descends further into some sort of dystopian nightmare.