Review – To Sir With Love, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 11th September 2013

To Sir With LoveYou remember the film, of course. Sidney Poitier tames an unruly bunch of Swinging Sixties East London teenagers and Lulu sings “To Sir With Love” to him at the end of term disco. Possibly you don’t remember the original book, the semi-autobiographical work of E R Braithwaite (who, aged 101, attended the Northampton press night all the way from his home in New York), about the erudite and suave West Indian immigrant, Ricky Braithwaite, and his experience of school teaching under an experimentally liberal headmaster.

Ansu KabiaAyub Khan Din’s adaptation of the novel returns the story back to its late 1940s setting, a time of poverty and deprivation for many; a post-war era where the indigenous white population were learning how to live side-by-side with new black neighbours. Ricardo Braithwaite has had a successful war in the RAF where he faced no prejudice; but out on Civvy Street three years later, life is very different. Like his creator, Ricky wants to use his degree to get a good job in engineering, but despite his academic qualifications, no employer will give him a chance.

Matthew KellySo he approaches Greenslade school to see if teaching might be an option; and within a few hours of observing the place finds himself hired and in charge of the terrifying senior class who will be leaving at the end of the year. Of course, he faces disruption, disobedience and distasteful behaviour from his students, who are the complete opposite of him in terms of education and demeanour. But egged on by his very forward-looking headmaster he finds other ways to gain their confidence, and progress is made. In the unlikely event that you don’t know how it all turns out, I’ll say no more.

Paul KempIf ever there was a play that shows how harmful and hurtful casual racism is, this is the one. There were many gasps of shock and amazement from the audience at some of the comments made by the world-weary cynical teacher Mr Weston, which you could take to be the attitude of the “old guard” as it were. There’s also the anti-Jewish comments made by one of the students, so close to the Second World War, which Braithwaite is quick to condemn. The effects of racial discrimination are painfully sharp, shown in the attitudes of both local working-class families and nice middle class people from Berkshire. It both disturbs and disappoints you. Because of the way it highlights and shames racism, Mrs Chrisparkle thinks the play should be compulsory viewing for all schoolchildren.

Nicola ReynoldsIt’s not just about racial prejudice of course; it’s a very interesting look at a progressive educational system (not without criticism), the effects of poverty and the class structure, the nature of bullying, and about friendship and love. At two and a half hours, it’s quite a long play by today’s standards but it certainly doesn’t feel it. We were both totally engrossed by the story and the performances that it absolutely flew by. Mike Britton’s set makes good use of the traditional school blackboard, and effectively recreates the comfortless, hostile environment of the old Victorian school room.

Peta CornishAt the heart of the story is Ricky, played by Ansu Kabia. He is perfect for the role, with his dignified bearing and crystal clear authoritative voice. It’s a superb performance from someone you can absolutely believe is that teacher, doing his best to rise above adversity to make a difference in the world, but who is only human too and reacts emotionally to injustice and personal slight. And what a trooper! After being knocked off his bike, breaking a finger and injuring his hand, he performs the play with his arm in a sling. The show must go on, and Mr Kabia’s devotion to duty is pretty goddam remarkable.

Mykola AllenMatthew Kelly, who we last saw playing another “unusual” teacher in The History Boys, is the maverick headmaster Florian. Whereas Hector was a law to himself in the classroom and lacked support from the powers that be, Florian is the man with the real authority, which Mr Kelly portrays with quiet, confident reason. It’s a really well thought through performance, and his conversations with “Sir”, helping him to establish a rapport with the children, are beautifully judged and constructive.

Harriet BallardPaul Kemp plays the irascible Weston, a pipe-smoking little bigot of a man who would really get under your skin if he were a colleague of yours. Mr Kemp gives him a brilliant weedy, whiny voice which helps emphasise his smallness of mind and vision. Weston gets his come-uppance, in a scene which Mr Kemp plays superbly well – you could hear a pin drop during his discomfited speech. The character is one of many who develop into different people at the end of the play from that which they were at the beginning. Nicola Reynolds is great as Clinty, the domestic science teacher – a good-hearted, no-nonsense character whom she really makes come alive. Unlike Weston, she’s the kind of character you really would like to have as a colleague. She has excellent comic timing in many funny scenes but also creates a lot of pathos where it’s needed. Peta Cornish is the other teacher Gillian, inexperienced at both teaching and at life, who falls for Ricky and very sweetly conveys the tentativeness and embarrassment of her emotions, and is simply lost when it all goes wrong.

Kerron DarbyThere are some great performances from the young actors too. I was really impressed with Mykola Allen as Denham, the most disruptive of the class, whose power base starts to ebb away as Sir becomes more popular. A more sour-faced difficult kid you could never hope to meet, it’s a very intelligent study of someone set in their own ways who refuses to change even when it’s the obvious thing to do; it’s also a great portrayal of a bully who gets what he deserves. His final scene is played with superb controlled emotion. Harriet Ballard, too, gives a great performance as the boisterously difficult Monica, all pretend effrontery and a challenge to anyone’s teaching skills, and whose visible softening is very believable and heart-warming to watch. Kerron Darby gives a very touching performance as Seales, troubled by his own racial heritage; his reaction to bad news really tears at your heartstrings;Heather Nicol and Heather Nicol gives an excellent performance as Pamela, the girl with a crush on Sir, making the best of all the situation’s potential for comedy and heartache. It’s a shame that the programme lists the rest of the cast as “ensemble” as they are distinctly different individuals with their own lines, characters and scenes. True, they did work together seamlessly as scene-shifters and dancers, but I think they should have been individually credited to their roles. I’m sure Sir would have thought each would deserve their own recognition.

Anyway, it’s an excellent production and a thoroughly enjoyable, funny and moving play. It’s the first in a new series of co-productions between the Royal and Derngate and Touring Consortium Theatre, of which we will see one a year for the next three years – sounds like something definitely to look forward to. After it leaves Northampton, it’s touring the country until the end of November. Go see it!

Review – The Lady in the Van, Oxford Playhouse, 1st July 2011

The Lady in the VanFather, would you hear my Confession please. It’s been 15 months since my last visit to the Oxford Playhouse. Last time we went, the staff were very offhand, signage was poor and it all felt a bit substandard. Great news is that it’s back to its former welcoming self, with polite and friendly front of house staff, and a clean and bright foyer that actually makes it feel bigger than it really is. They still don’t have a sign up saying which side of the auditorium you should enter to get closer to your seats, and you have to rely on the ushers to point you in the right direction, but at least it didn’t cause the same confusion as last time. And Father, you might enjoy the play, it’s got quite a lot of Catholic references.

For several years Alan Bennett’s garden became the home to the Lady in the Van – Miss Shepherd, who apparently lived in the van, and several other vehicles besides, for many years. A combination of her self-confidence, his soft-heartedness and a rather Zen acceptance that This Was How It Was Going To Be created this surreal neighbourly situation. And the presentation of the story in this play is pretty surreal too.

Alan Bennett is played by two actors, who simultaneously provide two changing aspects of his personality. This could be Bennett the talker and Bennett the thinker; Bennett’s actions and Bennett’s conscience; later on in the play it becomes Bennett the neighbour and Bennett the writer. This sounds a bit confusing but actually it works effortlessly well. Miss Shepherd’s conversation drifts from flights of fancy to the banal, and her larger-than-life character fits well into this surreal environment. Towards the end of the play she gets even more surreal, but I won’t spoil it for you. There is also a shadowy figure, who comes knocking at her door at odd intervals, using threatening obscenities – which seem a little out of place – and which doesn’t get explained until right at the end (and only then just).

Nichola McAuliffeThe best aspect of this production is that there are some excellent performances. Nichola McAuliffe is Miss Shepherd and she is every inch the feisty, cheeky, emotional character you would expect her to be. Nichola McAuliffe always brings huge gusto and verve to every part she plays and in this role she can be as brash, bold, wily and beguiling as she likes. You can always be assured of vocal clarity with Miss McAuliffe. Nobody sleeps while she’s on. It was because she was in the cast that we decided to see this play. She’s great. She’s one of Mrs Chrisparkle’s favourites.

Paul Kemp The two Alans were Paul Kemp and James Holmes and they gave very credible presentations of someone who the general public probably feels they know inside out – that must be a hard task in itself. I thought James Holmes in particular caught Bennett’s genteel ironies especially well. James Holmes The story takes place at a time in Bennett’s life when he was also dealing with the dwindling health of his mother, and that was very sympathetically put forward. They got a huge reception from the audience at curtain call.

Tina Gambe Two other performances I would single out are Tina Gambe, in the role of the social worker, who has some fantastically funny lines as she subtly imbues Bennett with the role of carer; Martin Wimbush and Martin Wimbush as the scary threatening figure, if for no other reason than he is the original Mr Crisparkle (without the H) from Edwin Drood – and therefore one of my favourites.

Bennett seems to like to put a “big event” in his plays. When we saw “Enjoy” a few years ago (a dreadfully overrated play I thought), the big visual impact moment came when the walls of the house were flattened out and the acting area became the whole stage – surrealism again. In “Lady in the Van” a similar moment comes when Miss Shepherd’s campervan is chained up and slowly raised into the sky. It sparked a round of applause from the audience. I always find it slightly depressing when something like that receives that level of appreciation – it’s just a device; something incidental to the story, the writing, the characterisation, the drama.

And that it the main problem with this play – I didn’t feel as though it had a lot going on in the Drama Department. It’s as though – much as Miss Shepherd herself points out – Alan Bennett could not decide whether the play was about Miss Shepherd or Alan Bennett. Apart from the fact that she lived in his garden, in reality their paths didn’t seem to cross much. He obviously decided it would be about both, but I’m not sure it worked.

I’ve done a Venn Diagram to show the problem. Bear with me, I’m no graphic designer. The black bit in the middle shows where the lives of the two characters cross, and that’s basically the drama of the play. And as you can see, it’s only a small percentage of their existences. The white unshaded bits might have made for a more focussed play. In addition to this, I have to say there were a few dreary speeches as well. Miss McAuliffe did her best to maintain the energy of the play at those times but it was an uphill struggle. So whilst it’s a good production, and with some excellent performances, as a whole I found it curiously unsatisfying.

Also, please spare some sympathy for people sitting in the first few rows. They could hardly have seen a thing. The stage is very high – I presume because there has to be a revolving circle to the stage floor so that Miss Shepherd’s vehicle can swing around. I’m guessing the Oxford Playhouse doesn’t have a revolving stage, so they had to build it in on top. Bear this in mind if you’re going to see it in Harrogate or Bradford in the final weeks of the tour.