Suffragette – London Film Festival

This is a film about betrayal – political, national and personal. And, as you’d expect, it’s also about sacrifice; sacrifice of family, of social standing, of safety, sacrifice of body and of life. The story of the Suffragettes may, a hundred years later, seem inevitable but in 1912-13, when women had been peacefully campaigning for the right to vote for 50 years, it was anything but. A right that nowadays is so fundamentally accepted by both sexes that many choose not to even exercise it is shown in Abi Morgan’s film to be incredibly hard-won.

It is of course London Film Festival time and in the next 10 days hundreds of films will be screened all over London, showing movies from across the world ranging from tiny indie flicks to major Hollywood premieres. This October is a big film month for me, for once pushing the theatre aside; it began with the incomparable Macbeth and will end with the simulcast Spectre on the 26th. In between is the Film Festival, probably my favourite time of year, which this year will include films such as Carol, Truth, Black Mass, High Rise and Steve Jobs.

But first up was Suffragette and you should not let the period setting fool you, this is brutal film that covers a short period in which women who campaigned for the right to vote turned to more militant tactics to get noticed. It was very much a man’s world before the First World War in industrial, political and domestic circles so even getting the media to take Suffragettes seriously and report their activity was difficult. This eye-opening film shows their attempt to increase awareness of their cause through increasingly violent tactics, building up to the famous death of Emily Wilding Davison who threw herself in front of the King’s horse at the Derby which, as this film argues, finally made women’s suffrage front page news.

But Morgan adroitly chooses a domestic approach to this story and while the famous figures of Davison and the Pankhurst waft through, it is ordinary working-class women in the East End who are the focus – a decision which both helps the audience to identify the contemporary relevance of this cause and veers away from the ‘great men of history’ approach which often wrongly ascribe significant change to the influence of a single individual. In this case, Emmeline Pankhurst was the inspiration but it was thousands of ordinary women of all classes who coordinated the protests. So we follow Maud, a fictional laundress, who finds herself accidentally drawn into the movement whose initial reluctance and fear of social humiliation amongst her community is contrasted by how much more radical she becomes than some of the original members.

Carey Mulligan gives a complex performance as the struggling Maud, and is particularly affecting when describing the real hardship women of her class experienced, without education and often working from the age of 7, enduring long hours, grinding poverty and unpleasant attention from their bosses. One of the most interesting things Mulligan shows us is just how long Maud has endured her second-class citizen role, clinging only to her happy family life with fellow-laundry worker husband (Ben Whishaw) and child, but that the movement gives her a clarity about her position and hope for something more. It’s incredibly moving at times as she sacrifices her happiness for the cause and there is a particularly heart-breaking moment that will have many audience members judging her decision before asking themselves tricky questions about whether they would do the same thing for such an important cause. But Mulligan shows us that Maud comes to her decisions organically, she’s not defiant from the start but almost surprises herself in becoming so passionately involved.

Maud is drawn to the cause by Violet played by the excellent Anne-Marie Duff, who agitates in the laundry and remains unaffected by the derision of the other workers. We’re only given hints about Violet’s domestic life – an alcoholic husband, numerous children and continual moves – but Duff instils her with a believable sense of a woman who made her choice long ago but human enough to understand the costs for everyone. Duff and Mulligan are supported by Helena Bonham Carter as a local pharmacist (with a sympathetic husband) who coordinates the local campaigns at increasing cost to her own health. Bonham Carter here gives one of her best performances in years, played absolutely straight, and represents another kind of sacrifice women made to secure the vote. Romola Garai turns up far more briefly than the promotional material suggests as a wealthy politician’s wife, whose role seems only to be patronised by her husband to show that other classes of women wanted the vote too – in fact she only has slightly more screen time than Meryl Streep as Pankhurst in a ‘blink- and-you’ll-miss-her’ 30 seconds of screen time, she’ll probably win an Oscar for it though!

It’s not all about the women and we see three different sets of men. First Ben Whishaw has a decent stab as Maud’s disapproving husband, and is probably the only man in the film who you see is also filling a socially determined gendered role, expected to control his wife, support the family and make the decisions. There’s also the one-note bulling factory boss with an eye for young girls that emphasises the horrific lot of working women at this time, and finally there’s a coming together of politicians and some kinds of secret service / police group that gives interesting texture about how the Establishment tracked and attempted to undermine the Suffragettes, but tells us little about the expectations on powerful men in this period. Brendan Gleeson and Sam West appear in the latter group and both are excellent, but West in particular is criminally underused.

As you leave the cinema, the thing you remember most is the violence that these women endured. Early on after finding the Government has betrayed them, a Suffragette protest is broken up by the savage beating of women by policeman which is hard to watch. This leads to some equalling gruelling prison scenes that show further assaults on the dignity of the female prisoners and in a galling scene the force-feeding of a hunger-striker through the nose. This of course all leads up to the finale at the Derby where director Sarah Gavron builds the tension with bustling crowd scenes full of confusion before the fatal moment when a shocked silence descends as the newspaper cameras finally notice the Suffragettes.  And this nicely dissolves from our cast going off to the funeral to the real footage of Suffragettes honouring their cause behind the hearse.

So is this a good film or is it an important one? Of course as the first ever film about Suffragettes its importance is assured and with very little competition unless you count one of Alec Guinness’s many brief turns in Kind Hearts and Coronets. But it also stands as an interesting and carefully crafted film, full of multi-layered characters who just happen to be telling true stories. Refreshingly, there’s no sense of inevitability about it and although we know now how it eventually turned out, the precariousness of it comes through so well in this film. And as the final notes reveal it still took a World War to give women over 30 the vote and another 10 years before everyone got the right. I said at the beginning that Suffragette is a film about betrayal and sacrifice, and so it carefully weaves together a national political cause with the domestic treacheries and losses endured by the women involved. Suffragette stands then not just as symbol of a 100 year old movement but brings a very human tale of bravery and faith to remind us that sometimes a higher cause is worth fighting for.

Suffragette was shown at the BFI London Film Festival and the programme is

Alice Anderson: Memory Movement Memory Objects – Wellcome Collection

The Wellcome Collection is probably not the first place you’d expect to see modern art but after the success of their excellence Forensics exhibition earlier in the year which mixed scientific objects with art and installation, the Wellcome has successfully progressed to a full-on art exhibition, albeit one with a link to the nature of human cognition. The way we form and retain memories both as individuals and as a society is a fascinating subject. Often on a personal level the things we remember change over time, becoming distorted, embellished and embedded by frequent retelling, while the things a nation or culture chooses to memorialise are often sanitised, stripped of emotion and form, empty platitudes to some significant event. Anderson’s work speaks to both of these interpretations which makes this exhibition well worth seeing.

Now our memories are increasingly recorded in online forms; websites that hold our pictures, record our thoughts encapsulated as Tweets or Status Updates, or suggest people it thinks we should know. Anderson represents this using the fine copper wire she uses to wrap everyday objects, and by wrap I mean completely encase, mummify and cocoon so they become both unable to be the things they were and something else at the same time.

It opens with the exhibition’s centrepiece a Ford Mustang car which you can help to wrap – book ahead and you can spend an hour helping to shroud the car in gleaming copper. Already heavily covered by my visit it is a strangely fascinating item to look at, recognisably a car still from all but a few angles, particularly the back where it’s begun to lose form. Divested of its natural function, is this still a car or just the memory of one? It’s beautiful but it can no longer do any of things it is supposed to, and you can barely discern its usual features all now moulded into a smooth and glittering shape. When you can’t look beyond the surface, then the surface is all there is, and what a damning insight into our modern culture, a love of shiny surface things that deep down have no purpose.

Next up is a dark room like a museum, filled with items on pedestals that look reverent against the blackness. Strangely the wrapping process seems to change the physical form of the objects making them seem soft and squishy so you want to touch them to check, which obviously you can’t. Shears, glasses, a video camera, iphone plug and mobile phone all recognisable but changed. Some of the most impressive pieces, however, are on a considerably larger scale – a globe that becomes a giant ball of hair, a flat screen TV that has been covered so meticulously with such faultless straight lines that it starts to look like a giant shiny pillow or an electric guitar, all of these things are divested of their purpose, muffled but preserved forever. As a statement on memory it is interesting, each object represents a moment in time frozen and just a fleeting idea of what it once was.

It is the meticulous skills of Anderson’s work however that is so fascinating and the centrepiece of the exhibition is a giant staircase which even up close looks like perfectly created wood grain. The way the wire has been wrapped around each step is in perfectly straight lines which glisten invitingly in the centre of the room. As a symbol it is very striking, an empty staircase leading nowhere seems to be the epitome of Anderson’s other work which while preserving or ‘mummifying’ these objects is simultaneously stripping them of their purpose.

The next room artfully wraps and arranges recognisable items in new ways to create innovative forms, and here you’ll need the accompanying text to tell you what some of these things are. You’ll notice as the exhibition progresses that it becomes harder to distinguish all the things on display as the wrapping process reduces them to mere geometric shapes. Here there are some eye catching pieces including a tower of what could be wastepaper bins stacked to the ceiling, the light dramatically catching the lines of the copper wrapping to draw the eye upwards. Also impressive is a wall of ladders used to create block patterns as different sets of rungs are bound together, so again we see how Anderson’s technique changes something’s function to art. One of the most interesting items is further on, a collection of tall rectangular panels arranged in a circle, each wrapped with a slightly different pattern. There’s something Stone Henge-like about it and you can stand in the centre of the panels or between them as part of the circle. What it means is largely open to interpretation but it perhaps suggests something about the way we ritualise memory-making, like a form of pagan festival.

The final room looks at destruction and picks up again on this theme of removing an items purpose, but this time by using the wrapping process to crush or distort it. We see how the screen of a laptop has buckled, the contortions of a crushed wheelbarrow and some straight planks that have become curls and waves under the strictures of their binding. So this is asking us to consider the pressure memory-making can exert on the remembered moment, squeezing it over time to become useless and changed, which reflects how susceptible our memories are to later distortion.

This is my favourite kind of exhibition, while there is some guidance on the artist’s intentions there is still plenty of scope for the viewer to see whatever they choose. While on the one hand I did see Anderson’s intention to focus on memory formation, you could also argue that she’s commenting on our shallow engagement with the wider world. Arguably we no longer care about depth or the truth of something, preferring to have only superficial engagements with a lot of things, thus Anderson’s perfect shiny surfaces belie what’s underneath and hold a mirror up to the shallow digital world we have created. But that’s only one interpretation and as this show offers no answers, perhaps it doesn’t mean anything at all. The Wellcome has opened its doors to modern art and offers a fascinating exhibition that combines impressive technical skill with wider philosophical debates about the way we preserve and record the world around us.

Alice Anderson: Memory Movement Memory Objects is at the Wellcome Collection until 18 October. Entrance is free.

Film Review: Macbeth

All. Hail. Macbeth. I’m not usually one for sweeping or grandiose statements but this new film version of Macbeth means I can feel a couple coming on. Here we go – this is the best Shakespeare film ever made and the best version of Macbeth I have ever seen on stage or screen. Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most incredible plays and over the years I’ve seen a number of professional and fringe productions, but somehow none of them has ever produced the kind of reaction I’d hoped for. The intensity of the story and how Shakespeare builds the sense of threat should feel devastating and I’ve longed to see a production that grabs you by the throat at the beginning before turning you out onto the London streets dazed and wrecked by what you’ve seen. I’ve been entertained, engaged and disappointed but never subsumed… until now.

There are three core questions that any production must ask itself – whatever choice the company makes is fine as long as they choose and are consistent about applying it. First, what is the role of the supernatural, are the witches real and does their prophecy pre-determine Macbeth’s future beyond his control or do they merely cement his own human agency? Second which of the Macbeths is driving events, is it him with support or does Lady Macbeth convince him to do something against his own will? Finally is Macbeth motivated by power and greed, does he commit countless murders because his human frailty cannot displease his wife or is he essentially evil? Many a production has failed by not making the decisions on day one, and what is so spectacular about Justin Kurzel’s new film is not just that they choose a clear path but it is beautifully realised and reinforced throughout the film.

In a recent interview Kurzel explained that Shakespeare on film often feels a little staid because they start with the beauty of the language and try to fit the rest of the action around it. But what works on stage can be stilted on screen. Instead Kurzel began with the characters, working with the cast to discover who they were, where they came from and what they wanted, so that the language and their speeches should evolve ‘organically’ from their personality. This approach gives a real power to the events depicted and at every point you feel you’re watching living, breathing people who feel entirely believable. The enormous tragedy of Macbeth becomes an immensely affecting disaster that you live with the characters so as the brutality increases to what is here both an epic and timeless conclusion, you’re completely bereft as the credits roll. Like I say, best Shakespeare film ever.

It uses two core themes that serve to explain not just the context in which the characters exist but also the psychology of their behaviour. It opens with the funeral of the Macbeths’ only son, a pagan-like festival, almost Viking in its feel that immediately places our protagonists in the midst of an intense grief. Throughout we see children playing in the fields outside, attending events with their fathers and in a nod to Henry V, fresh-faced teenagers fighting and dying in Macbeth’s army, for Macbeth’s cause. And there is a shocking moment involving children that will be familiar to Game of Thrones fans. Kurzel has taken a rather oblique reference to the death of the Macbeths’ child and brilliantly used that as the spearhead of their motivation. The fears about producing an heir, so commonplace in medieval and early-modern kingship, add heft to Macbeth’s actions in a futile attempt to defy the prophecy that Banquo’s sons, not his, will inherit the crown. Likewise, viewing Lady Macbeth as a grieving mother helps to explain her ambition for a better place, a woman expected amongst her rank to produce heirs, failing to do so and clawing at other entrapments – fascinating.

The second theme is the effects of warfare and the nature of living in a combatant society. What is so so brilliant about this film is the observation it makes about warfare, here depicted in a medieval setting, but so contemporary in its comment about the confusing effects of conflict on the individual, referencing both ideas of manly behaviour and expectation, as well as the emotional consequences of killing and seeing your comrades killed. In Michael Fassbender’s incredible performance we see that Macbeth’s reluctance to murder Duncan comes from this notion that killing on the battlefield for a noble purpose is one thing, but doing it in cold blood in peacetime for personal ends is quite another. Even better, his mind then fails to make a distinction between the two and begins to reel with a combined survivor’s and murderer’s guilt as the ghosts of the men he led to die, now fruitlessly, for Duncan’s cause, as well as those he destroyed for his own, haunt him.

The film is bookended by some of the most extraordinary fight scenes you’ll ever see. The first follows swiftly from the child’s funeral to put the grieving Macbeth in the thick of the action with the camera right in the heart of it all as men clash and flail. Then Macbeth is still as the battle rages around him in slow motion, and the 3 witches appear to him (with an added child witch to reinforce that theme), so the audience knows in that moment his fate is sealed. Amazingly Kurzel and his crew top this for the final confrontation between Macbeth and his aggressor Macduff, which neatly addresses the movement of Birnam Wood towards Dunsinane, and takes place against a landscape filled with orange smoke with flecks of ash pouring across the scene in the wind. It’s visually stunning and epic, a little reminiscent of Skyfall’s final set-piece as Bond rushed through the coloured haze of the moors to save M, and clearly implies a new era of battle depiction that can look simultaneously fierce and lyrically beautiful. The ending too poignantly reminds us that conflict is never over and as one King assumes the throne, another rises to take his place.

And so to the performances; I could gush for hours about how wonderful an actor Fassbender is and I can’t think of a single time he’s given anything less than a commanding performance. People have mixed feelings about films like The Counselor and Prometheus but Fassbender was still wonderful in them. His ability to entirely inhabit a character, to absolutely become them means he can give a performance of considerable depth whether he’s playing a suspect in Poirot, a comic book anti-hero in X-Men or as an emotionally cold sex-addict in Shame. And he is Macbeth and I mean he absolutely is Macbeth. It’s a tough role and unlike others the pitch of it must waver along with the story. He doesn’t start on a high and fall down, or start low and progress linearly, but alters throughout. Fassbender is so utterly magnificent in this role because the audience follows the twisted path with him, starting as a loyal warrior, before he is overcome with anxiety about the murder he commits in a moment of savagery but with tears in his eyes – a phenomenal depiction of conflicting emotion. After it’s done, rather than revelling in his new kingship, he is broken with guilt and fear, seeing ghosts and slumped on the floor of his new palace. Yet he rises again after the witches confirm no man born of woman can destroy him so his confidence soars, pushing his wife aside and, so certain of his destiny, committing tyrannous acts. The bubble finally bursts again in the final battle and realisation dawns on his face with the subtlest flicker as he succumbs to inevitability. All of this is in Fassbender’s electrifying performance and it’s astonishing to watch. The only thing that should be standing between him and an Oscar is possibly his other film, Steve Jobs.

Marion Cotillard is perfectly matched as Lady Macbeth, the arbiter of the plan in this version. There is something quite ethereal about her that sets her apart from the others. Partly it’s the semi-French accent (it was quite common for European royal houses to inter-marry) but her initial grief sets her apart from the other characters so we only see her properly interact with her husband and no one else, which gives weight to the nature of their conspiracy. The scenes between them pulsate with tension as they drive each other to act and Cotillard shrewdly shows her Lady Macbeth channelling her frustrated motherhood and pain into an act of regicide which eventually has devastating consequences for herself. The supporting cast is wonderful to; David Thewlis makes a brief appearance as a bounteous and likeable Duncan, while Paddy Considine’s Banquo silently reeks of disappointment and fear of his friend. Sean Harris arrives quite late on but makes a big impression as the pinched and vengeful Macduff.

Everything about this film has been so carefully thought through and the evidence of that comes across spectacularly on screen. Kurzel has created a completely compelling film that, as all good five star productions should, leaves you both in awe and utterly drained. It is so atmospheric and throbs with danger and tension all the way through – you cannot take your eyes off the screen. It is the production of Macbeth that I have waited for and if this cast could reconvene on a London stage anytime soon that would make this even more amazing. I cannot wait to see this again, in fact I’m off to find another screening now, who’s coming?

Macbeth is released in cinemas nationwide on Friday 2nd October. You should really really go! Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

Soldiers and Suffragettes: The Photography of Christina Broom – Museum of London Docklands

You’re going to be hearing a lot about Suffragettes in the next few weeks as we build up to the release of a new film about them staring Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham-Carter and Anne Marie Duff, which premières at the London Film Festival in October (review to follow). In anticipation the Docklands Museum is hosting a brilliant exhibition about photographer Christina Broom whose dynamic photography captured not just the diverse and vibrant celebrations of women’s contribution to society in the early 20th century, but also the contrasting male world of military discipline, routine and service in the First World War. Broom is credited as being one of the first press photographers and her images laid the groundwork for later photojournalism.

It seems strange (albeit welcome) now to think that a female photographer could be permitted access to the British establishment and Royal Family, as well as the more anti-establishment Suffragette marches and events, but the images here speak for themselves, showing the incredible rapport Broom must have had with her subjects. As you arrive, a number of avenues are open to you, allowing you to enter a number of thematically curated rooms. One way will take you to the Suffragettes, another to soldiers and others to royalty and London. As Suffragettes are the flavour of the month I decided to head right.

Broom’s pictures celebrate the both the various achievements of women at the time and their organisation by photographing demonstrations and a number of fairs and events designed to showcase their work. The Women’s Exhibition of 1909 features heavily in this section with posed clusters of workers such as nurses and midwives, the female caterers of the event and leading lights in the world of Suffragette agitation such as Christable Pankhurst. Yet some of the best images, although clearly staged, capture some of the bustle of the day at the stalls, depict the promotion of the event or show a 1908 Suffrage demonstration where around 13000 women marched with banners, one of which is also on display.  There’s also a fascinating selection of portraits of Suffragettes wearing historical costume celebrating the women of the past and belief that the medieval period was the last time women had any proper sense of equality or freedom.

Just when you’re thinking that Broom must have been entirely in sympathy with these women in order to photograph them, the next room suggests that her pragmatism as a working photographer over-rode her political affiliations. Her images of soldiers are among the most interesting I’ve ever-seen, many of them pre-dating her Suffragette shots and continuing into the First World War, and capturing both the idea of military order and the more human notions of comradeship. Fascinatingly, the men being photographed seem entirely relaxed in Broom’s company, and having a woman with a camera involved in what are entirely masculine moments unexpectedly creates a sense of ease. The relaxed poses of the men as they glare happily into the camera are boosted by humorous shots such as a very tall soldier standing to attention next to a young and much shorter recruit, and also by considerably poignant ones as men say goodbye to their loved ones at railway stations before going off to war. The warmth of these pictures is such that it’s impossible not to feel a pang that many of these happy, smiling men would never return or if they did would be forever affected by what was about to happen to them.

In the next room, again Broom’s proximity to royalty is astonishing as she photographs them at the Royal Mews or driving in carriages. She similarly had access to some of the leading sporting events of the day, capturing atmospheric moments from the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race which are beautifully shot or horses at leading race events. It’s not hard to see why Broom has been attributed with the title of Britain’s first press photographer with work that so diversely captures major news stories, the emotional moments of protest and war, as well as the bedrocks of English life in this period. More than anything, her work can clearly be seen as capturing the look of her age in what are some incredibly skilled technical images. She liked to shoot out of doors to ensure real light (how very reminiscent of English master like Constable and Turner) which gives her work a naturalness that even in the most posed shots brings out the humanity in the sitters and the reality of what they were engaged in – be it an energetic rowing race or campaigning for the rights of women.

This new exhibition at the Docklands Museum is a timely and welcome insight into the early Twentieth-century, speaking to both the upcoming interest in the Suffragette movement as the eponymously titled film receives its premier at the London Film Festival, and a part of the ongoing commemoration of the First World War. More than anything, this exhibition introduces you to a fascinating woman, Christina Broom, who was trusted and welcomed by people from across that very class-ridden society. From the Royal Family to leading sportsmen, from Society ladies looking for equality to working-class boys off to war, Broom’s work is filled with warmth and affection for her subjects, and clearly theirs for her. Soldiers and Suffragettes is one of those rare exhibitions that doesn’t just shed new light on the time in which Broom lived, but also celebrates the fascinatingly diverse life of Britain’s first female press photographer.

Soldiers and Suffragettes is at the Museum of London Docklands until 1 November and entrance is free.

Future Conditional – Old Vic

Education, education, education; many believe it’s the foundation of your life, the greatest time you’ll ever have and a key determinate of the subsequent opportunities offered to you. Selective, free, academy, public, grammar, comprehensive, religious, state – there are many different types of school to choose from but for parents, teachers, pupils and policy-makers navigating the various pros and pitfalls is a minefield. What is the best education system for our nation and who should parents make choices for – the benefit of wider society or just focus on their individual child?

Future Conditional, Tamsin Oglesby’s new play at the Old Vic attempts to discuss some of these issues by looking at education from the perspectives of three different groups of people; the first is a group of largely middle-class mums at the school gate trying to get their child into the best school for next term – it’s a discussion that takes them from a social campaign to support the local school and help increase its academic performance, to catchment area moves to get into the best school,  to applying for local fee-paying alternatives. A second story is that of a hardworking teacher managing the banter of his teenage pupils offering them some form of education with a social conscience, while the final group is a think tank tasked with developing a new manifesto for schools.

It’s a nice idea but somehow this play just doesn’t quite work. Each of these perspectives is potentially interesting and well performed but as a whole it’s just not quite coming together enough – it has lots of points to make but no clear overall argument or solution. Part of the problem is the dialogue doesn’t always feel natural, there’s too much of a polemic in the debates that occasionally irritates rather than informs, with characters all to obviously acting as the mouthpiece of the author rather than properly developed and rounded people. Another problem is the absence of children from any of the scenes, even though cast members and ensemble sit in school uniform around the edge of the stage, the writer hasn’t included any dialogue for them, so often actors playing parents and teachers are talking to thin air and having extras dressed as children onstage is a completely redundant design decision. Annoyingly instead they use that 70s sitcom one-sided phone call technique of repeating back what the other person said before they answer – it’s lazy writing and surely comedy has moved on a bit since then.

Two of the stories are drawn together by the experience of a young Asian student Alia (Nikki Patel) who we first see applying to an Oxbridge College where the two interviewees debate her suitability in terms of fulfilling their quota rather than her intellect. She also appears in individual scenes alongside Rob Brydon’s put-upon teacher, when she gets into trouble for hitting another pupil, and is the ‘student-view’ in the think-tank. For some reason Oglesby couldn’t come up with a way to include her among the mums which actually makes no sense if Alia is the meant to be the common factor, or child’s-view here. Having her exist and no other children is also quite a strange choice, unless Ogelsby is trying to make a point about the anonymity of individuals in our education system, in which case this is far from clear.

As I say the performances are all extremely good; Rob Brydon makes good use of his comedy and pathos skills, and despite almost never having anyone to act with delivers a touching performance as the teacher doing his best and worried that he’s letting his pupils down. Lucy Briggs-Owen has become one of London’s most reliable stage performers  and follows up on her excellent role here in Fortune’s Fool and the more recent Ayckbourne revival, Communicating Doors at the Menier, with a nicely pitched performance as a middle-class mother willing to pay for the best school even at the expense of her friend’s principles. She’s given good support from the other mums including Natalie Klamar as campaigning mum Suzy who refuses to play the game, jeopardising her child’s future.

Across at the think-tank more clichéd debates are had about the way opportunities are created for students which leads to plenty of Oxbridge bashing and a proposal that the esteemed universities take 3 pupils from every school regardless of attainment which, if there is one, is probably the key message of this piece. Again nice performances particularly from Joshua McGuire as Oliver and Brian Vernel as Bill who have a particularly juicy stand-off on this issue that results in a food fight – whenever you lose your way as a writer always include a food fight to distract the audience. The trouble with this think tank is that like the play it is a talking shop, at the end of which everyone acknowledges that tearing our education system down and starting again isn’t an option. Perhaps our entire education debate hinges on one catch-22 problem – do you change everything, even the stuff that’s good, to make it fairer, or do you find some way to raise the standard of everything else so it reaches the good stuff?

Although Future Conditional is a noble attempt to debate the perceived failings in our education system, its too simplistic approach fails to either satisfyingly bring together its multi-narrative approach or take a particularly clear view on what to do about it. All the stories are enjoyable but don’t fully engage with the complexities of the system we have and the bias of everyone’s perspective. Schooling is something we’ve all gone through and whether our experience of it was positive or negative will influence how we feel about certain types of schools. As no one is able to experience all types of education first-hand it becomes impossible to fully comprehend how effective this comprehensive is or how rigorous that grammar school may be. What is true is that there is no one winning combination for churning out perfect members of society –many decent people leave a comprehensive as they do a public school, and many terrible ones do too, so while our whole education systems focuses on the many rather than the individual these debates will rumble on. As for Future Conditional it’s a pleasant enough evening and funny at times, but in terms of what to do about our schools, it doesn’t solve anything.

Future Conditional is at the Old Vic until 3 October. Tickets start at £10.


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