Review: Education, Education, Education (Trafalgar Studios)
The Wardrobe Ensemble's play about 90s nostalgia in a school arrives in the West End
Its name borrowed from a famous Tony Blair slogan, Education, Education, Education recalls the sweeping optimism of May 1997 when New Labour won power and the UK even won Eurovision. Things could only get better, as they said back in those days. This much is the hope at Wordsworth Comprehensive, with its unruly pupils and ancient textbooks both badly in need of some reform.
The Wardrobe Ensemble have fed their own school memories into the play, which is showing in the West End for the first time. The writers are also performers; alternating between teacher and teenager in a funny 75 minutes directed by Jesse Jones and Helena Middleton.
It's the day after Labour's election landslide. The teachers are embroiled in staffroom politics; the self-styled Head of Discipline (a ferocious Jesse Meadows) clashing with others who favour a more progressive approach suited to the times. As for the teens, they play with Tamagotchis and do the Macarena down corridors in a '90s nostalgia-binge that's sure to delight millennials (it did us, but anyone of a very different generation will surely lose the thread at times).
All very joyful, although you worry the story will go nowhere before two intertwined plotlines do start to emerge. There is a troubled girl who seems destined for expulsion, and an English teacher pushing for more holistic methods in classrooms. It's all overseen by Tobias (a wry James Newton), a German teaching assistant who offers soliloquies about political change in Britain.
While events happen on the cusp of a new, compassionate education system brought in by the Blairites, the show's love letter to their 13 years in charge is a bit flat. All the action happens the day after Blair's election win, so none of his reforms are actually dramatised. And while our present political mess is grumbled about, there's little contemplation of how we got here; 20 years of history – including failings of Labour – glossed over with vague mentions of austerity and Brexit.
In fact, the play is so relentlessly fond of the year 1997 specifically that you might think things were only downhill from there; not up. If Britain peaked when Britpop topped the charts, then things really didn't get much better under Blair or anyone since. That seems a little self-contradictory. Maybe it's the play offering up a point about the illusory nature of nostalgia.
But there's little harm in indulging yourself with the rose-tinted spectacles for little more than an hour, and this indulgence – above the politics – is the draw of Education, Education, Education. The show falls over itself to blare out memorable tunes from the era, with characters breaking into dance each time. And there are some classroom skits that will resonate whenever you went to school; a dumb PE teacher attempting to stand in to take a French lesson the most wicked of them.