Anyone over thirty couldn’t help but see the massive contrast between the state of British politics now, and when Tony Blair swept to power on a wave of good vibes, optimism and a promise that things can only get better. History teaches us a different outcome, but on the morning of 2nd May 1997, when the Wardrobe Ensemble’s Education, Education, Education is set, the world looked on in envy as ‘Cool Britannia’ ruled the waves, and The Spice Girls were topping the charts.
Borrowing its name from Blair’s mantra, the show was originally written and staged to mark the 20th anniversary of New Labour’s ascent to power. Garnering positive reviews and awards at Edinburgh Fringe, the Wardrobe Ensemble bring their devised piece to the West End’s Trafalgar Studios.
At Wordsworth Comprehensive, years of neglect sees pupils taught in portacabins while the textbooks are years out of date. The new Government’s promised investment comes as news for celebration by the faculty, even if it is muck-up day. There’s a leavers assembly to organise, a one-night stand to be hushed up, and Emily Greenslade still isn’t behaving herself.
Parts of the story are told to us through the eyes of Tobias, who has arrived from Germany on a teaching assistant placement. It’s a nice way of providing an objective look at Britain on that day, and James Newton delivers the role with superb comic ability.
Education, Education, Education is a fantastically physical piece of theatre, music of the era combining with slick, and often surprising, movement gives it a hugely dynamic feel. The ensemble play the roles of both teachers and pupils, adopting their own names for the latter while their school photos are projected on to the rear wall.
With the benefit of a West End stage there was perhaps an opportunity to expand the show out a little, picking up on some of the subplots and fleshing them out, but as it is, the fringe friendly 75 minute running time still allows plenty of time for a myriad of farcical situations to arise. Mr Pashley (Ben Vardy) and his attachment to a Tamagotchi provides much amusement, while the well meaning but woefully inadequate Head Teacher (Tom England) lives in constant denial about the state of his school.
Emily Greenslade (Emily Greenslade) starts a petition when she’s not allowed to go on a school trip due to bad behaviour, it’s a nod to the Iraq War petition and there’s plenty more clever little references to Blair’s premiership woven in to the piece. It’s also a pretty good reflection of society and its dynamics, wrapped up in a neat little world of the classroom.
Education, Education, Education is a gloriously funny and smart fringe show, which has now proven itself in the West End. Perhaps the larger stage could have been better utilised for greater effect, but the saying if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it comes to mind. The play reminds us of a time when the country was certainly broken, and desperately needed fixing, how pertinent a message in Britain today, but if Cool Britannia is lost forever, at least we have theatre makers like the Wardrobe Ensemble to bring a little happiness back to us all.