Having spent 20 years teaching, I thought that going to see a play about education might be a bit of a busman’s holiday. I was also worried that it might be rather like one of those programmes on television about schools that are so unrealistic as to distract anyone with any knowledge of what happens there. I need not have worried. This excellent and well observed play by Richard Molloy is realistic to the point of painfulness. The frustration, the hope, the joy of what it is like to work or study in the contemporary education system is beautifully shown.
Molloy’s examination of the system is character led and never preachy but shows the pressure on staff and students from a test driven system. Based around three “failures” — students having to retake GCSE English in the sixth form — and their teacher, the play examines their interactions, and suggests reasons as to why they find themselves in this position.
Their social situation is made apparent but never in an overly emotional way. These people are survivors, having to cope with the outside world with all its pressures and the demands of the school system. The setting at first appears rather as schools used to be, grubby and neglected rather than the new corporate architecture common today, but this emerges as a metaphor rather than an illustration.
The play hinges on a small but terrible act towards the end of the first act which reminded me of the plays of Eugene O’Neill. This is brave writing; we see that the bullied are not necessarily nice people and that the bully is not always stupid and charmless.
The students and the teacher in the end get on by cooperating and working together, in the process of which compromises have to be made. They appear to be simple practical choices where others might see moral questions. This raises the level of the drama and asks the audience real questions.
The acting is superb throughout, the cast making up a fine ensemble. Sophia Barclay is natural and intriguing as Alisha and Moe Bar-el is totally charming as bad boy Kareem, a character every teacher will know and love. The hard task falls to Josh Zare as Iman — his character is understated and potentially could have been colourless. Zare brings great skill and subtlety to the part and his physical portrayal is impressive. The teacher, played by Susan Stanley, is well observed. I’m sure I know that woman! Alice Hamilton’s direction is sure footed and never intrusive.
Tickets for this show, which runs until 20 October, are only £12 or cheaper and well worth it. This is the start of a season at Hampstead Downstairs and I will certainly be booking up for other performances if this show is anything to go by.