REVIEW: Education Education Education (Trafalgar Studios)

This Wednesday, Mummy went to the theatre. So far, so predictable. But Mummy was not with the munchkins. Neither was she with Mrs Mummy. Nor was she by herself. And not only did Mummy go to see a grown-up show with colleagues, but it was (whisper it) not a musical. Mummy’s usual condition for seeing a play of the non-musical variety is that it contains gays or Gillian Anderson. Education Education Education was not advertised as involving either . But Mummy’s real person job involves imparting wisdom to impressionable young minds. A play set in a 1990s comprehensive school therefore seemed like the perfect post-work treat for a trio of tutors in their early 30s. As an added bonus, it runs at 70 minutes without an interval. Ideal on a school night.

Education Education Education is written and devised by Wardrobe Ensemble. It was created in 2017 and is set twenty years earlier, in the immediate aftermath of two of the most significant events in modern British history; Tony Blair’s General Election win and Katrina & the Waves storming to victory at the Eurovision Song Contest. Cool Britannia is in full swing and the staff-room at Wordsworth Comprehensive is buzzing with optimism for the future of education. But first there is the small matter of dealing with the pupils of the present. And the looming year 11 leavers assembly.

Here we meet German teaching assistant Tobias, who has just arrived for his first day at the school. Played brilliantly by James Newton, he partially narrates the events that unfold and somehow manages to simultaneously be the sanest and most mad character in the entire play. Tobias joins a teaching staff which is technically commanded by enthusiastic headteacher Hugh (Tom England) but in reality run with an iron fist by head of discipline Louise Turner (Kerry Lovell). Providing a sharp contrast to Louise’s militant teaching style is cuddly Sue Belltop-Doyle (Jesse Meadows), who commands no authority whatsoever yet somehow has ended up as head of Year 11. The teaching line up is completed by history teacher Paul McIntyre (Tom Brennan) who spent election night doing unspeakable things with Louise (who no longer wishes to speak of them) and PE teacher Timothy Pashley (Ben Vardy), whose most meaningful relationship is with a confiscated Tamagotchi.

And if you think that the Tamagotchi reference was quite the throwback, things can only get better. From Encarta and shag bands to the ritual humiliation of bleep tests, this love letter to 1990s Britain is littered with nostalgic references, all set to the soundtrack of the Spice Girls’ heyday. The script is slick, the staging impressive and the set simple yet effective. (Did anyone go to a school that didn’t have those ceiling tiles?!) But this is far more than just a comedic trip down memory lane. Viewed from the lens of Brexit Britain, flashbacks to Cool Britannia feel a world away from nasty nationalism. Likewise, talk of money being pumped into education falls on the ears of an audience who know of the devastating cuts to come.

There is also a serious side to the story itself, which centres around trouble(d) student Emily Greenslade (Emily Greenslade). And it is here that the clashes between Louise and Sue highlight the difficulties teachers face in influencing individual lives within a system that sees students as statistics. Emily’s fight against an unfair ban on attending a school trip also resonates with a public powerless to pick its own Prime Minister, let alone have a say in how to implement the most significant vote in generations. Once a model student, Emily has been disenfranchised by the system that ultimately will expel her. And whilst Tobias assures us that things can only get better for Emily, the audience watches uncomfortably in the knowledge that for Britain they are going to get an awful lot worse.

Education Education Education is a history lesson with a difference. 2019 should take notes.

RATING: Raindrops, Whiskers, Kettles & Mittens (aka 4 out of 5 of my favourite things)