On Thursday the LBC presenter was talking about private schools. About how he freely admitted he went to a fee-paying school. He wanted – demanded, really, he got quite heated while arguing with himself – to know why any parent would feel embarrassed – as his producer assured him they were – to send their child to a pro. A roving report had done some vox pox outside Dulwich College. None of the mums (for mums they were) professed embarrassment – but then, self-selection would remove those that might have. One mentioned the schools’ high number of assisted places, which seemed to be a salve to her conscience.
It was during this broadcast that I realised that it is September. Schools have just started. Places have been scrambled for. Pushy parents are breathing a sigh of relief. That this didn’t occur to me during Future Conditional at the Old Vic earlier this week is indicative of just how not-for-me the play is. Of course it’s the perfect time of year for the first play from new Artistic Director Matthew Warchus. Because Tamsin Oglesby’s Future Conditional is ABOUT EDUCATION. Schools, universities, parents, teachers, government policy, grades, learning styles, international approaches, entrance exams, scholarships, faith schools, privilege, prejudice and discipline – the play is comprehensive, and I don’t intend that as a pun. It approaches the subject like Ulysses approaches Dublin, with encyclopedic ambition.
Unfortunately it does so with three main storytelling structures, only one of which holds sustained interest. In her interview on the Old Vic stage, Oglesby is completely open about how the play grew from the ‘pushy parents at the school gate’ scenario, and widened in scope. This arc remains entirely distinct from the other two storylines, which do intersect: a government policy thinktank debating how best to raise the UK’s ratings in the international league tables and a secondary-school teacher (Rob Brydon) both interact with the smart schoolgirl Alia (Nikki Patel) who, having come from Pakistan and been taken in by a foster family, is the only character in the play who marvels at the British education system rather than trying to change it or cheat it.
Because these three plots essentially compete for our attention, we have a difficult combination of a long running time and many short, sketch-like scenes which allow room only for flat characters and some miserable stereotyping: the characters of the school gate scenes must represent diverse opinions on the issue of private schools, but this translates into several interchangeable white middle-class women who hold precise and distinct opinions on the issues, being joined by an Asian mother who seems to hold her child in distain, and a poverty-stricken alcoholic who cares more about St George’s Day and her dog than her child. In the thinktank, good-willed intelligent people find their group’s opinions divide along institutional lines.
Brydon plays the inspirational but frustrated Mr Crane with the breathy good humour that is expected both of him and teachers across the country, but almost all of Oglesby’s characters are portrayed as basically well-intentioned within a broken system. I wish there had been an unashamedly self-interested voice in the pack, like the LBC presenter I heard a few days later.
Warchus’ production is far more youthful, far more rock ‘n’ roll than the play, with School Of Rock style guitarists duelling from the boxes, and school uniforms swarming the stage with every scene change. The size of the cast is very exciting – eighteen! And supernumeraries! For a new play! – and hopefully a sign of things to come from Warchus’ reign, but it’s unfortunate that actors then spend so much time speaking to invisible children.
The poster-boards of Brydon posing with kids in school uniform suggest one kind of inspirational drama and Oglesby’s structure implies another – about a hard-hitting moral quandary. The end product finds neither tone, and instead Future Conditional is overlong, all even-handed debate and middle-class angst. As with plays about buying houses, it takes real characters to make us care about policy or pushy parents, and this play doesn’t have room for any.