School Play, by Alex Mackeith, is at its best when the dialogue is quick, elegant, and very funny. It begins with the start of a school day. Lara (Fola Evans-Akingbola), a headteacher’s admin assistant in a primary school, arrives into the office barely put together; she’s hungover. The nearly silent comedy as she riffles through papers and tries to decide whether to open the Year 6 SATS results are the perfect precursor to the quick pat exchange with her headmistress Jo (Ann Ogbomo).
This production is brilliant at conveying the tight scheduled life of running a school. Anyone who knows teachers will recognise the beaming positivity they can put on, and the mental exhaustion it hides. The set design, by Anna Reid, is perfect. It felt like I was back at my primary school: surrounded by the same bright blue, squishy armchairs and the little plastic chairs for children, wavy coloured borders on the whiteboards, and towers of grey filing cabinets. So nostalgic. It is intricate enough to feel real, and not messy enough to be distracting. The detail goes down to the caretaker changing the time on the clock.
At its worst, the play gets a bit preachy. Jo delivers an epic monologue about the moral iniquity of tutors, privatisation of education, bureaucracy of assessments, and the absurd rewards system (as though headteachers needed to be compelled to help their kids achieve). It’s all angry and impassioned – rightly so – but for the length of the play, doesn’t feel dramatically justified.
By this point we’ve met one such tutor. Tom (Oliver Dench) is a privately educated Oxford graduate who is young, and a bit naïve. He’s most funny when stepping on the toes of Lara as she tries to get on with her day. There’s a whole did-they-didn’t-they routine. (Obviously, they did.) Dench pitches it just right until the script starts to slightly let him down. At the beginning, Tom is written as his own person – confidently trying to win over the girl and inspired to teach in creative ways. But by the end, that boiled down into a stereotype whose purpose is to derive laughs from the entitled person we think he might be.
Fortunately, at its heart, School Play has personal stories that carry us through the darker, moralising tones. There are just two school children who we hear about in any detail. One is only spoken of, but through Jo’s struggle to up her attendance and support her father with his child’s diabetes, we see how wrapped up in the pupils’ lives she becomes. Another plays Pokémon Go in the office while waiting to get picked up. She tells Tom about her father who gets her to come on gardening sales pitches while he sneaks around the back for a ‘look around’. His stifled reactions and chat with Lara afterwards are very amusing.
Charlie Parham’s production is a polished and entertaining examination of the day-to-day lives of teachers and the pressures they face. The comedy is well-schooled and the assembly of characters brilliantly balanced. Thumbs up for a fairly diverse cast. For a first play, it’s a triumph.
School Play is at Southwark Playhouse until 25 February 2017. For more information and tickets, see here.
Photos by Guy Bell