A messy, enjoyable start to Matthew Warchus's reign at the Old Vic
The arrival of new artistic director Matthew Warchus has knocked years off the Old Vic. The theatre’s gone a bit yoof, with a trendy refurb of the foyer and bar, and now this energetic, rock-soundtracked drama about Britain’s educational establishment.
Opening to speeches from Maggie Thatcher and Tony Blair alongside strains of punked-up Beatles tracks, Tamsin Oglesby’s ‘Future Conditional’ suggests that if our school system was itself at school, it would have scored a big fat F in its last SATs. The three strands of story follow a diverse bunch of mothers at the primary school gates dealing with the desperate world of secondary school selection; the excellent Mr Crane – comedian Rob Brydon delivering a nicely understated performance – teaching a secondary school class including a bright Pakistani refugee revelling in the chance to learn; and then there’s a collection of government stooges tasked with bringing out a report on how they can make Britain’s education better.
The issues are all recognisable – parents pretending they are nearer to a school than they are in order to secure a place; Brydon’s harassed but inspiring Mr Crane struggling in a world where some kids have zero respect for their teachers; the government trying to tackle a system that isn’t working, while also avoiding any unhelpful headlines.
Though Oglesby’s scenarios are very funny, and grapple well with some complex issues, the sheer number of characters mean that several are fairly lazy stereotypes. It’s only the story of the Malala Yousafzai-like Alia – brought to life in an excellent debut by Nikki Patel – where Oglesby’s main theme that education is a gift really shines through.
Alia comes to recommend an overhaul of our system to the policy-makers, which means that it’s a little disappointing when, to show how far Alia has come, Oglesby has her score a place at Oxford. It’s an easy signifier of excellence, but one that ultimately jars with one of the play’s main messages: that perhaps we should be remoulding education in Britain so that Oxbridge is not, necessarily, the pinnacle of achievement.
But Warchus’s upbeat production brings out the play’s galvanising, energetic spirit. His stage is flanked by two electric guitar players, who stand above the action and ramp up the noise, while an ensemble of uniformed schoolkids trample about the stage during scene changes, fighting and chatting as if in the playground. ‘Future Conditional’ gets an A for effort, but there’s room for improvement.
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3.7 / 5
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This is superb theatre and I enjoyed every minute of it, as did the rest of the audience; there were several spontaneous bursts of applause which are not that common in straight (non musical) theatre.
There are three main scenes: outside the school gates (where mothers bounce off each other and scheme to get their children into the best schools(, inside the classroom (where Rob Brydon does a faultless turn as a caring teacher in a difficult school), and in some cross-party government education committee charged with coming up with a new education strategy (where the Eton/Oxbridge types fight with the comprehensive school types). The scene changes are set to rock music by two talented young guitarists.
Theatre can make you think (and this certainly does) but above all it should be entertaining (which it certainly is). The production cracks along at a good pace and there are lots of individually entertaining scenes.
Other reviews have complained that there are too many caricatures or 'tired' stereotypes (e.g. there is a fat bloke who eats too many biscuits), but I would argue that judicious use of stereotypes in the theatre generally make it accessible and funny. With a huge cast (about 20), if they were all expectation-defying characters that conformed to no recognisable pattern, then the whole thing would be almost impossible to follow.
Another complaint is that there are too many ideas. Well, that might be a problem for a political polemic or white paper that is trying to justify one particular policy, but in the theatre a sparkle of different ideas is stimulating, and stops you getting stuck on any one you object to.
Finally, one reviewer complained about the humour being slapstick, but that is true for perhaps 5 minutes out of two and a half hours. And most people, even if they don't admit it, secretly enjoy a bit of slapstick anyway.
So in summary; great witty script, great stagecraft, great performances, great music, a great night out. Get tickets while you can and enjoy it!
I really did not enjoy this. The humour is very basic and slapstick - not my cup of tea.
This is also a very political play, but it didn't really bring anything new to the debate, instead just trotting out the same tired old arguments we've all read in the papers. Generally I had the sense that the writer was trying to ram her views about education down my throat.
The malala-like heroine was supposed to be inspiring but actually came across as quite weird.
Perhaps no surprise with Rob Brydon in the cast, this observation of the confused state of Britain's education system - with free schools, academies, private, state schools etc - was delivered with sharp wit. Playground politics played out and the notable absence of any children in these scenes further reinforced the sense of adults behaving like children as they got ruthlessly competitive about getting their child into the 'best' school. Meanwhile, in the staffroom, the staff's own education experiences blurred their views on what really constitutes a 'good' education. Alia, a refugee from Pakistan, arrives with refreshing 'outside' observations of the education system that shakes up all the assumptions within the playground and the staffroom. This play kept me thinking when I left.
Mostly sublime, occasionally ridiculous analysis of educational ethics with Rob Brydon doing a star turn as a put-upon schoolmaster. The young Afghan refugee is also excellent and suitably inspirational as a beacon of social mobility. Ends sentimentally and one or two clunking stereotypes but maybe that's intentional and meant to be ironic? Mostly great.