Edinburgh review: Education, Education, Education (Pleasance Dome)
Wardrobe Ensemble's new piece takes us into the halls of a comprehensive in the '90s
Things could only get better, they said. It's 21 years since young Tony Blair laid out his priorities: Education, Education, Education. Sure enough, schools funding shot up under New Labour, facilities improved and an outmoded, shambolic system was brought up to date. The future was bright – and it had the grades to prove it.
Set on the May morning of the New Labour landslide, Wardrobe Ensemble's devised play takes us into Wordsworth Comprehensive. The staff room is stale with bad breath and crap coffee, the classrooms are portacabins and Tamagotchis are in. Headmaster Hugh, a proud, romantic Welshman, is flushed with fresh optimism. "Our country," he announces to his morning assembly, "has opted to invest in every one of you."
Wardrobe Ensemble balances that burning idealism with a sense of the chaos churning underneath. A new German teacher Tobias, straight as a ruler, looks on incredulous at staff divisions, student rebellions and all-round indiscipline. Meek English mistress Sue butts up against the hard-nosed Miss Turner. The PE teacher is perfectly dim.
The fun is in the schools-out spirit. Not only does it show our old teachers as fallible humans, it lets the drab school day burst into surrealist comedy. The honed script functions like quickfire sketch comedy and the result is a state of the nation play spliced with the Beano. The springy comic strip style leads it into the odd contrivance, the thinking beneath is both serious and astute – enough to rival any David Hare diatribe.
The thrust is that schools sow the seeds of the future, and it's impossible not to glimpse the roots of today's problems in the classrooms of 20 years ago. It's in the attitude that insists "every one of you is special," even as it gives up on disruptive pupils. Best of all is its line between Cool Britannia and Brexit. The corridors are lined with Union Jacks, and language lessons are treated with scepticism and suspicion. Does a generation that drilled national pride into the curriculum believe it can go it alone?
At one point, a pupil shoots an off-hand insult at Tobias: ‘Nazi.' It seems shocking today, but the truth of it lands. The term was school slang, maybe it still is. That dynamic underpins the whole show, in fact. Wardrobe Ensemble lure us in with nostalgia – Encarta and shag bands and The Big Breakfast before school – then use that same recognition against us. We're implicated by association. Beneath the optimism on show, there's a groundswell of irony that's as mournful as it is accusatory. We could do a lot worse than learn from it.
Education, Education, Education runs at Pleasance Courtyard until August 27, 17.20, then tours.