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A CurtainUp London Review
It opens in Oxford where two dons, one female and progressive, one male and reactionary, are interviewing Alia (Nikki Patel) an exceptionally bright Leytonstone schoolgirl who wants to read English, after being inspired at 15 by her teacher, Mr Crane (Rob Brydon). The male professor keeps asking Alia where she is from and she says Hastings. He of course wants to know what nationality she is because his narrow priority is tradition, old boys and the college funding rather than opening up Oxford to bright pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Cut to a group of mothers waiting outside a primary school, meeting 9 and 10 year olds on the cusp of changing to a secondary school. These mothers represent a spread and many of them are carrying the scooters the children will ride home. Hettie (Lucy Briggs-Owen)'s son Joshua is occupied every night with an extra curricular activity and he is set to go to a private school. Earnest Suzy (Natalie Klamar) wants to keep her daughter in the state sector condemning the elitism of the fee payers and hopes the middle class parents will join her at Petwood. Other mothers will employ tutors to help the children pass entrance tests and some will even rent a flat close to a good school to be closer to the catchment area or use a relative's address.
These are the serious manipulations used to get to a choice school, in this case, Gunnersfield, which is to be made an academy, a school which breaks away from local authority control and decides its own budget and is consequently sought after, being perceived as "better" disciplined. These elite academies are seen to "damage" the other schools in the area like Petwood. Some children are learning obscure musical instruments like the bassoon and euphonium with an eye to orchestral needs in the new school.
This discussion is happening with lively wit and characterization. Kaye (Amy Dawson) is a real scene stealer with her hair hoisted into a big doughnut bun and huge earrings and the shortest of skirts. Her accent is pure Estuary English but she is also a real animal lover but volatile. The mothers deserve their own television series sit com.
Scene Three and we are in Mr Crane's English class with the well cast Rob Brydon as a weary Welsh teacher working in East London. We hear his lesson on a bare stage but not from his pupils whose comments and actions are in his speaking to them.
Scene Four and the last element is a meeting of the Education Commission charged with making a report for the formation of government policy on the nation's education system. Representatives from all political parties debate. There is upper class twit Oliver (Joshua McGuire) whose parents sent him to the most prestigious boarding school in England, Eton. Ben Lloyd Hughes as Rob has been to a school for clever as well as rich children, a famous London day school, St Pauls. At the other end of the class spectrum is Bill (Brian Vernel), a Scottish socialist from a working class area where there is unemployment and depression. He represents an educational charity. Along with the discussion on how to improve education across the board, there are running jokes on a tubby member of the committee statistician Ed (Louis Martin) who, like Tantalus, is figuring out how to reach the plate of biscuits.
It is the PISA international league tables on the best education system in the world which is concerning the committee. This debate parodies the school league tables set up in England to try to improve standards but actually increasing competition and skullduggery. England and Wales (Scotland has its own system) have dropped 26 places in the world rankings to forty second which is ten places below Vietnam. Oliver suggests Hong Kong has done so well because there is no working class there and explanations are offered about the results being skewed. So serious issues are wrapped up in humour and I laughed and laughed.
Playing in the round, in the Old Vic's excellent reconvened space, Robe Howell's functional set has painted playground lines for playing different sports and giant teaching aids behind. In the boxes upstairs two guitarists (Ben Lochrie and Carmen Vandenberg) sing and play rock songs between scenes for diverted from, slick changes. The adult ensemble in school uniform sit to the side in some scenes.
The commission decide to ask a school girl to join them and Alia is chosen. Topically, she came here as a refugee from Pakistan on her own at 12 years old and went into foster care. Many of the UK's care leavers are unaccompanied minors arriving in Britain from the Third World. Alia will come up with a plan to ensure that bright children can get a chance of getting into Oxford and Cambridge, universities which have higher representation from private schools than state schools. The mothers will change tactics and position in the nerve racking selection process and Mr Crane will be asked to apologise to a complaining parent of a disruptive child, the rebellious Jordan whom we don't see, but hear about his transgressions. Rob Brydon's telling monologue in reply to the vexatious mother is not an apology but his saying sorry for the many assumed woes of parenting Jordan and her lot.
Future Conditional is brimming with spikey one liners and clever jokes making for a very pleasurable and stimulating start to the Warchus reign in The Cut.
Up next is Eugene O'Neill's The Hairy Ape with its portrayal of sexual attraction and class divide on a transatlantic liner directed by Richard Jones.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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