“Blair’s not the Messiah, he’s a very liberal Tory.”
It’s the first week of May, 1997. Spirits are high. The UK has won Eurovision, and Tony Blair has led the Labour Party to a landslide election victory, famously promising that his government’s top three priorities would be ‘education, education, education’. The heady optimism of these days feels rather remote from the bleak political terrain in which we are currently mired, but it is brought to life with a warm combination of nostalgia and irony in this clever and highly theatrical devised piece from Wardrobe Ensemble.
Set in ‘Wordsworth Comprehensive School’, the teachers are elated at the election result but also trying to cope with the vagaries of ‘Muck-up Day’ (the day when the Year 11s go on study leave, and, basically, all hell breaks loose). The Head of Discipline, tyrannised by Ofsted and grade requirements, strides around school shouting commands accompanied by a (mimed) blast of an AK-47. She is pitched against an idealistic English teacher vainly seeking to ‘bring the subject alive’, but unable to keep her Year 10s from fighting in the classroom. On the sidelines is a fairly clueless PE teacher, standing in for an absent colleague (“Je suis going to be covering your French lesson today.”) and a jaded and cynical history teacher, drowning in marking. Leading this motley crew is a relentlessly enthusiastic Head Teacher, whose commitment to human perfectibility inclines him to re-frame every piece of delinquent pupil behaviour as inventive or ‘boisterous’ – to the eternal frustration of those who are simply trying to keep a lid on the place.
Catapulted into this melee is a new German teacher whose ‘outsider’ perspective enables him to act as our narrator, often stopping the action and providing a commentary delivered with a stereotypical Germanic stiffness and a very humorous humourlessness.
There’s clearly some shameless caricaturing going on here, but it all feels very affectionate – and if the characters are rather over-drawn, they are also perfectly constructed to deliver some weighty political themes with an engagingly light touch. And what is striking about these themes is how little has changed. Twenty-odd years on, the pitch battle for the soul of education (league tables vs liberal education) is still being played out in schools on a daily basis – and exclusion as a response to behavioural difficulties continues to be a highly contested policy issue with huge consequences for individual life chances.
But it is not the political relevance, or the characters, or even the evocative ‘90s soundtrack that makes this a great show; it is the staging. Education Education Education is a visual treat. The theatricality and choreography are inventive, ambitious, and delivered with tremendous polish. Characters weave in and out of two wheeled doors; desks and chairs glide on, around and off – and are even, in a lesson about the eruption of Vesuvius, hoisted aloft in balletic slow motion. It is a constant spectacle. The cast multi-role as students, tearing through ‘corridors’ and in and out of ‘classrooms’, conveying bustle and chaos and a palpable sense of things spiralling out of control. The pace and energy is quite extraordinary. It would be wonderful to watch even ‘with the sound down’.
That said, I do feel it has lost a little of the electric energy that I found so exhilarating at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe. There, it was performed in an intimate space on a thrust stage, which seemed to suit it rather better than the conventional and more distancing set-up of the Lowry’s Quays Theatre. I also miss the photos of each cast member as a young schoolboy/girl which, in the Fringe show, were projected onto the back screen whenever they appeared in a pupil role. This simple device personalised the performances and was very effective in heightening our sense of connection to the piece.
But this is to carp. Education Education Education is impressive, funny, thought-provoking and poignant. Most of all, it has a big heart and irrepressible optimism, which is delightfully refreshing.
“Maybe one day you’ll pick up a mandolin and discover you really like playing the mandolin and then just spend the rest of your life playing the mandolin. Who knows? It’s quite exciting.”