By Isobel Edmondson, Travel Digital Editor
“A job is a job” and “staff wellbeing is staff wellbeing” are just a couple of lines echoing the empty yet loaded circular phrase we hear too often when things are going downhill: it is what it is.
"Much was open to interpretation; I imagine each audience member had a completely unique watching experience. For me, that’s an indication of great theatrical craftsmanship."
Four years in the making, with feedback from Liverpool Everyman Theatre, Eleanor Hall’s sombre yet witty The Staff at the Winston Theatre takes the issue of poor working conditions for staff in schools to the nth degree, and it couldn’t be better timed. As the daughter of two secondary school teachers, Hall creates a world which allows us to see teachers as people - crucially away from pupils, who are deliberately not featured.
The plot follows school teacher Sheena, sitting at her kitchen table at 4am. She is lost for inspiration thinking up the next school play. But soon, a production births itself with the help of her warring inner thoughts and fellow staff members.
The set was minimal, drawing attention to a few Alice-In-Wonderland-esque objects including blown-up dice, a deck of cards and a chessboard, showing a running game-playing theme. At one point the words ‘PAY YOUR STAFF’ appeared in paint on the back wall - appropriate given that the production was scheduled during the third week of UCU strikes.
The Staff boasts a talented cast. Stan Abbott-Stacey, who, decked in a grey wig that was one curl away from being Georgian, plays the clipped-spoken and gloriously unlikeable Heseltine Mason who was endlessly entertaining to watch. Clashing with Ella Hakin’s character, Jane, who fights tooth and nail to keep standards up, Heseltine characterises the dismissal of staff wellbeing as a trivial side-consideration in the pursuit of achieving that shimmering Ofsted mark of approval.
Edie Dacosta-Jackson switches seamlessly between one of Sheena’s thought demons and the slightly dippy but loveable Sue, who fantasises about the holidays. Grace O’Sullivan (Sheena) delivers her lines with a mesmerising clarity and focus in an almost narrator-like fashion.
The evident hard work that has gone into rehearsals alongside full-time studies indicates an undeniable professionalism and dedication to the message, reflective of the many teachers and tutors we all know who are still treading water, struggling to get their voices not only heard but listened to.
Despite not personally loving certain interludes of sporadic words projected at the audience or the chopping up of lines in the ensemble, representations of a collective suffering amid unacceptable working conditions were clear.
Visual markers of staff’s declining mental and physical health throughout the play created palpable anxiety which transcended the stage, framed by the motif of Heseltine’s stomping feet in unison with the staff’s deep breaths. Sitting on the front row was jarring in the best way possible.
As had been suggested to me, the final act was indeed the best. I’m a sucker for a play that descends into near-nonsensical hootenanny. As a rule, if I’m not wavering between slightly confused and tickled, I want none of it. So when the audience were invited into Sheena’s sleep-deprived fever dream spectacle, I was having a ball. Much was open to interpretation; I imagine each audience member had a completely unique watching experience. For me, that’s an indication of great theatrical craftsmanship.
Ending with a literal bang, just when you think you’re going to be slapped with another ‘And it was all a dream’ cliché, Hall subverts expectations, forcing us to face the sobering fact that the action is nothing less than a living nightmare for many teachers in the UK today. As included in the brochure, according to the Teacher Wellbeing Index 2021, ‘59% of staff have considered leaving the sector in the past academic year due to effects on their mental health and wellbeing’.
I highly recommend seeing The Staff if it is performed again. It is the type of play you could rewatch and absorb several times and it would improve like a fine wine. I look forward to seeing Eleanor Hall’s, and the rest of the team’s, next moves.
Featured Image: Courtesy of Eleanor Hall
What did you think of Dramsoc’s The Staff?