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Seriously impressive debut play about the target driven grind of British primaries
The SATs results are in and everyone’s under pressure. Alex MacKeith’s debut play is set in a London primary headteacher’s office. Secretary Lara (Fola Evans-Akingbola) masks her hangover with brutal efficiency, while the head, Jo (Ann Ogbomo), visibly crumbles under a barrage of tough calls. And as these two women administrate an unseen empire of children, we get a worrying insight into who’s really running the show.
This play is big on detail. SATs results need to hit a certain threshold to earn the school the pupil premium, and corporate vultures are circling, ready to turn the school into an academy if they fail. Evans-Akingbola delivers reams of practical info about the primary system in her closely observed, witty performance as Lara, but it never feels like we’re being whacked over the head with a teacher-training handbook. And Ogbomo delivers a searingly smart take down of clueless 21-year-old adjunct teacher Tom (Oliver Dench) – his quirky off-syllabus methods are no use in a school that has to conform to survive.
Tom’s character is mostly there for light relief, and his attempts to woo a snowed-under and increasingly furious Lara are pretty hilarious. But he’s the play’s central plank in more ways than one. It’s his Winchester and Oxbridge-educated naivety that makes him think that all the school needs to sort it out is a bit of flash, a bit of dash. And his bravado is an echo of that of the unseen politicians responsible for decades of meddling in every detail of school life.
MacKeith’s play is a really strong debut, done justice by a naturalistic, primary-bright setting and Charlie Parham’s fluent direction. And if it’s sometimes as blunt as a wax crayon, it still delivers the stab in the eye that its targets deserve.