The Last Thrash at the Orange Tree Theatre

Richmond's tiny Orange Tree Theatre, under the artistic directorship of the mercurial Sam Walters, has long been a home of experimental drama and new writing, and now David Cregan's, The Last Thrash, continues this tradition. A savagely funny behind-the-scenes look at a fictitious public school, it should have parents yearning to follow Tony Blair's example and send their kids off to a nice comprehensive instead.

Directed by Dominic Hill, this two-act drama centres on the kerfuffle caused by the imminent thrashing of young ne'er-do- well, Jerry Morrison (Sam Marks), who has allegedly smoked marijuana and - horror of horrors - visited the village shop whilst kitted out in cricket whites. Aware that corporal punishment is now illegal, the despotic headmaster Herbert (Walters, in a rare acting role) decides to take the law into his own hands and suffer the protestations of his staff. After all, a 'Windsor' will be joining them soon, and there is the need to set an example to the rest of the school.

Some delightfully awful characters have been drawn by Cregan, chief among them being the oleaginous deputy, Cattley (Jeremy Crutchley), who has a vested interest in preventing the caning because he's bonking the boy's mum (Lucy Tregear). Tricia Kelley puts in a fine performance as a neurotic English Mistress, who's clearly been through the mill of the education system, while Paul Kemp and Nick Fletcher play a couple of masters who start out fighting over a billet-doux and end up snogging each other.

Although The Last Thrash has one foot planted clearly in satire, it has the other in farce, often featuring some hilarious scenes. At one point, the joint-puffing Maths teacher (David Timson) stumbles across Cattley pleasuring school secretary Kay (Emma Gregory) on the lawn. 'Is this preparation for when we take girls next term?', he swiftly enquires.

Impressive though the ensemble acting may be, it s let down by Tim Meacock's set, with its yards of green shag pile carpet, supposedly standing in for a carefully tended staff lawn. Somehow, it made the stage area feel more like Jason King's seventies-style bedroom.

The Last Thrash has much in common with the TV series Chalk, in that it reveals the staff to be more childish than the kids they teach. But, beneath the comedy, there is a serious message here: should the overlords of these ivory towers, with their racist, sexist, class-ridden values, really be given carte blanche to mould impressionable young minds in the dubious name of 'improvement'?

Richard Forrest