The initial image of primary coloured walls, whiteboards adorned with timetables and play equipment nestled in-between cushioned couches suggests an educational haven: simple, safe and secure. However, as the action in Alex MacKeith’s School Play commences and we’re introduced to the actuality of the space, this illusion of a sanctuary proves false.
School Play portrays the current British education system as a bureaucratic labyrinth, one that is out of touch with the needs of the classroom and reduces students to statistics. It also places further burdens on overworked teachers and riles up frustrated parents, giving them ammo to shoot their displeasure at any target they please. In recent years, narratives surrounding our troubled education structure have proved interesting fodder for the stage – think Future Conditional at The Old Vic, which investigated similar grievances with the pressures on students and parents. MacKeith’s experience of working in a London primary school has no doubt prepared him well to comment on the infrastructure from within.
Time is measured by a clock that hangs on the far wall, wound forward sporadically by the school caretaker; the large jumps in hours helps to create a pressure cooker environment. During the early school day, the head teacher (Ann Ogbomo) and her staid secretary, Lara (Fola Evans-Akingbola), demonstrate a confident rapport that allows them to rattle through their tasks list with harmonious ease. They appear fully in sync with one another, absorbed by their daily routine. That is until Oxbridge graduate and part-time tutor, Tom (Oliver Dench), threatens to destabilise things. His privilege has rendered him oblivious to the struggles of his colleagues, best typified by his prancing around the office, trying to flirt with Lara whilst she attempts to work.
Ogbomo provides a strong performance that best shines in the quieter moments in the play. Perhaps a little mechanical in the initial scenes, she eventually eases into the character and allows the audience to explore the complexity of the character. In saying that, MacKeith’s creation is tricky; there’s no doubt that Jo is a wilful character, but the inclusion of a recently divorced husband muddies our perception of her unnecessarily. As she sits alone in her office, she listens to her voicemails that report a missed call from her ex, his voice gently coaxing her to complete the proceedings. Had the head teacher been written as a male, it’s hard to foresee that the same scenes would have been included. It is enough to have Jo muddle through the pressures of school and feel frustrated, without the problem being rooted in a personal relationship with a man.
Additionally, a scene of desperation towards the latter half feels misjudged as the rage unsettles her otherwise carefully managed performance. Fola Evans-Akingbola is buoyant as Lara, bouncing through the scenes with both a likeability and sincerity that serve the character well. Oliver Dench’s Tom is a character made for television, quick-witted and awkward; he won plenty of laughs from the audience.
It’s a slick production, aided by Anna Reid’s design and Michael England’s sound design work, which add a level of urgency. Charlie Parham’s competent direction enables a solid pace, with particularly strong transitions. There are a few rogue moments of ill-judged choices, including the introduction of a child actor towards the final scene, which proves jarring against the otherwise haunting absence of students that permeates through the production. Disregarding minor foibles, School Play is an inventive and confident production that spotlights individuals engulfed by the heavy shadow of a rigid education system.
School Play is on until 25th February 2017 at Southwark Playhouse. Click here for more details.