The subtitle for Tasmin Oglesby’s punchy play interrogating the education system could well be #checkyourprivilege. But it manages this without lecturing, or schooling, or being shouty. Instead, with a playground set, Rob Brydon as everyone’s favourite teacher, and a group of scooter-holding yummy and disgruntled mummies, it drills into educational inequalities and absurd policies with real humour and sensitivity.
Rob Brydon, as one of those brilliant down-to-earth state school teachers, schools a group of ever-present children, but we only hear one of their voices; a sixteen-year-old girl called Alia. Oglesby’s script crafts speech so that we hear the other children’s answers without needing to have them voiced. It’s hilarious. Byrdon’s Mr Crane spells out ideas like ‘bias’ and ‘taste’ and ‘articles of fact’ with knowing commitment to independent thought. In doing so, Oglesby advances good teachers as the dynamite needed in the system.
A group of self-appointed education experts is made up of: a biscuit munching stats guy, the impassioned guy who went to state school, the educational psychologist, the posh girl who ‘just’ went to a selective grammar, the over-privileged Old Etonian, and the woman who wants the child’s voice to be heard. There’s a stereotype underlying each of these characters but the debates raised regarding the UK’s falling education standards on the international playing field rise far above anything cliche or mundane.
A group of Mums in the primary school playground seem to have only two common factors: micro scooters and children. They fight it out to provide the best for their little ones. It gets catty. It gets desperate. The rah couple are one hessian-tote-and-yoga-leggings Mum and her Barbour-wearing and checked scarf wearing husband. They fake separation so that the husband can buy a flat a bit further down the road to get into the right catchment area. Another Mum games the school postcode lottery by faking the address on her utility bills.
The public-private war is delivered here as a conflict between self-interest and liberal ideology. New Balance-trainers-with-jeans Mum, Hettie (Lucy Briggs-Owen), sends her kid to public school because he is just so clever and it would be wrong to deny him the chance to succeed. You might want to call her a champagne socialist, as she purports Guardian-fuelled morals while trying to defend her decision. She comes to blows with Suzy (Natalie Klamar) who could afford private but won’t pay.
Cutting through the cat fights in the playground – children are absent but childishness certainly is not – is the strong young voice of Alia. Nikki Patel delicately handles the role of this Pakistani girl who comes to England age eleven, enters the foster system and achieves ‘excellence’ against the odds. There are lovely resonances with Malala Yousafzai. She prizes education with inspiring hope and her maturity contrasts with her more apathetic school mates. Alia’s analysis of the bullshit system at an education panel meeting, put in terms of ‘tribes’, is in on point. And her astute observation that the English give diametric meanings to single words (‘public’ means ‘private’) as the way they avoid fundamentalism gets a roaring cheer.
There is a fresh intellectual vigour to Future Conditional. Matthew Warchus has started his reign over the Old Vic with an irresistible youthful comedy. It burns brightly over the shadow of Spacey, casting away the froth of High Society and heralding great expectations for the rest of the ambitious eight-show season.
Future Conditional plays the Old Vic until 3 October. For future information and tickets, see the Old Vic website. Photo: Tristram Kenton.