6 February 2017
Often, designers don’t get nearly enough credit, but in School Play, now running at Southwark Playhouse, they most certainly deserve it. In Anna Reid’s design, the audience finds themselves peering into the headteacher's office of a primary school. And it is. It really, indisputably, is. Every detail, from the brittle, cost-effective carpeting, to the flickering fluorescent light, to the cards and personal knick-knacks that inhabit the desks, is a perfect recreation. The level of detail is unsettlingly accurate, and to those who attended a primary school like this, it's instantly and spookily familiar. All at once I could envision myself, ten years old, stood the other side of the office door with a friend in tow (on trips to the office there was always a rule that one party would knock and the other talk – both slightly terrifying prospects when faced with the Head) summoning up the courage to enter.
This office is the central nervous system of St Barnabus’ school. The coloured pen smothering the whiteboards depicts data, timetables, never ending to-do lists and reminders. It’s the domain of educator Jo Fell (the excellent Ann Ogbomo), and today is a big day. There’s a hundred different things going on – the year six’s school trip, the dreaded SATs results, maintenance issues, difficult parents and more. The SATs results, in particular, are a concern, as the testing of eleven-year-old children could ultimately have a knock on effect on how Jo can run her school. It’s a small world for a drama, but, as Jo mentions, later on, it’s not happening in a vacuum. This world is small, but it’s close. This could be happening just down the street, and in many parts of the country, it probably is.
But back at Southwark Playhouse, director Charlie Parham and team have come up trumps with a cast. As forthright Jo, Ogbomo is a force to be reckoned with, pouring all her time and energy into her students whilst her personal life falls apart around her. Oliver Dench as hired tutor and Oxford graduate Tom is a painfully, toe-curlingly portrait of oblivious privilege – another image that is horrifically familiar (we have all, unfortunately, known a Tom). Fola Evans-Akingbola is also fantastic as quietly capable administrator Lara.
The script, from newcomer Alec MacKeith, shines. The 90 minutes running time is packed to the brim with absorbing, believable story, and the entire production has wit and intelligence in spades. Sometimes, particularly during the longer speeches, the writing borders on a lecture on the modern education system, but this is rare enough to be forgivable. It may also simply be a symptom of the amount of knowledge that has gone into the play. Oh, and it’s very, very funny. Dench and Evans-Akingbola, in particular, provide much hilarity in their rapid-fire dialogue, him constantly trying to prove how oh-so-clever he is and she always being that half a step ahead, to our delight.
It's difficult to believe that this is MacKeith’s playwriting debut, and he has created an accomplished piece that would be the envy of many of his more established contemporaries. As a writer, he shows incredible promise. I look forward to seeing what he does next.
With its strong cast, impeccable design, timely subject matter and a solid script, School Play could easily become one of the surprise gems of 2017. Now is the time to see it.
Until 25 February 2017
Photos: Guy Bell