'A celebration and an indictment'- Education, Education, Education @ Bristol Old Vic

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By Cameron Henderson

It’s Election Day 1997, and national pride has reached a fever pitch. Blair’s New Labour are in Downing Street, Katrina and the Waves have won Eurovision and the nation is abuzz with excitement and a sense of newfound optimism. In a wave of madness, people are ‘actually smiling on the bus…’. Britain has certainly taken a change of direction.

In Wordsworth Comprehensive School it's muck-up day, and the teachers are struggling to contain their own excitement while keeping a lid on the day's events. The Wardrobe Ensemble offers us what appears to be a hilarious romp through 90s nostalgia, replete with Take That references, Acorn computers and turkey-twizzlers.

'a hilarious romp through 90s nostalgia'

However, the show surpasses these expectations, bringing to light issues swept under the carpet by the starry-eyed optimism of headmaster Mr Mills. Although Mills invites us to admire the ‘potential in these corridors’, we are made to question what the students are being taught and why, and the ways in which the dysfunctional environment of a secondary school reflects upon the political climate as a whole.

The play is, in the words of directors Jones and Middleton, ‘a love letter to our teachers’. It rather satisfyingly pulls back the curtain on that oft-ruminated mystery: ‘what do teachers get up to behind closed doors?’. As the play progresses, we discover with amusement that these highly confidential activities are surprisingly similar to those of their students. Mr Pashley develops a fond attachment to a confiscated tamagotchi while, in a frenzy of political zeal, Miss Turner and Mr McIntyre mark the election result with a celebratory quickie (Turner puts it down to ‘the sight of the majority’).

'Miss Turner and Mr McIntyre mark the election result with a celebratory quickie'

Education, Education, Education is a celebration and an indictment of the British education system in equal measure. We may laugh at the farcical fight scene between McIntyre and Pashley, complete with German teaching assistant looking on with bemusement. However, after the initial giggles subside, we cannot help but begin to question the fate of our nation’s youth under such instruction.

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The show uses the microcosm of school and the teachers’ attitudes towards their students as an analogy for the political nation in a state of flux. The protests of Emily Greendale against her teachers’ supposedly unfair treatment reflects the futility of the individual in the face of unwanted political change. While teachers like Mills see their students’ problems as their own, a new wave is gathering momentum, where student success is determined by figures on a spreadsheet.

'the play elegantly treads the tightrope between comedic nostalgia and profound introspection'

Education does not condone either of these educational approaches: Mills’ blind optimism is shown to breed a generation of youth with no sense of culpability for their actions, while the disciplinarian approach of Turner simply compounds the students’ lack of self-worth. Instead, the audience is left to contemplate our government’s failure to adequately support the development of future generations.

Throughout the performance, the comic timing of Tobias’ deadpan asides stands out alongside the physical comedy of the farcical headmaster, which together create a production that is threaded with razor-sharp irony. The play elegantly treads the tightrope between comedic nostalgia and profound introspection to capture the zeitgeist of a generation. In the end, all that’s left is to resort to that oh-so-British refrain of ‘Pub?’.

'a love letter to our teachers'

We end the play with the melancholy sense of the end of an era. Although Education makes no secret of its condemnation of this generation's blinkered idealism, we are left with a vivid sense of the possibility provided by all its vintage, starry-eyed hope.

★★★★


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