The Spice Girls are touring, slip dresses and in fashion and the Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony is making the news, you might be forgiven for thinking we’ve gone back 20-years. In fact, the pop culture of the 90s is having a mini renaissance where its influence can be felt across cultural boundaries, not least in The Wardrobe Ensemble’s new play Education, Education, Education that makes its way to Trafalgar Studios after a critically acclaimed appearance at the Edinburgh Festival. Specifically, they take us back to one day in 1997, the 2 May to be precise the day everything changed.
The landslide New Labour victory that made Tony Blair Prime Minister, at the time, felt like a turning point in modern history. 18 years of Conservative rule had been categorically swept away on a tide of optimism, the popularity of a young charismatic leader and promises of Cool Britannia. The future would be fresh, youthful and provide greater opportunities for everyone. “Education, Education, Education” Blair proclaimed would be the new Government’s priority, and after years of underfunding and decline for Britain’s schools, things could only get better.
The Wardrobe Ensemble set their 70-minute play in the full-flush of that hope, the day after the election when anything and everything was possible. This frames the drama, but it’s the daily business of the school that comes immediately under scrutiny. Six teachers and a receptionist face “muck-up day” and presentation assembly, the final day of school for Year 11 pupils about to begin study leave before sitting their GCSEs. Disastrous pranks, disciplinary problems, variable teaching methods, staff rivalries and broken promises all feature in one chaotic day that highlights the gap between ministerial rhetoric and life in the classroom.
The play uses a narrator, a German teaching assistant who arrives at Wordsworth School on that very day, speaking directly to the audience and relaying his impressions both of the Britain he has come to admire and the disordered nature of school life for staff and pupils. On one level Education, Education, Education is a light comedy, full of nostalgia for the music of the decade which plays in the Trafalgar Studios bar and auditorium, as well as peppered throughout the play. But politics lurks beneath the surface and like The History Boys and Labour of Love, this is far from a ringing endorsement of the Blair administration, and in fact builds on Bennett’s technique by looking briefly at the future consequences for particular individuals and the physical school building, insisting that despite D Ream’s promise very little actually got better after all.
For anyone who was there, what hits you first is Ben Grant’s sound design, piped through the building and blasted loudly as you take your seat. M-People, Oasis, Gina G, Celine Dion, the Verve, Suede and Take That as well a series of dance classics are among the songs that will take you right back to your 90s common room or first club night experiences. Before the play starts it quite smartly creates a false idea that somehow the world was better then, simpler and more united. With references to the Spice Girls and the UK’s last Eurovision winner Katrina and the Waves, we are primed to agree with headmaster Mr Mills, 22-years ago we were living in a much better time.
But The Wardrobe Ensemble have far more to say than that and a key debate focuses on the faux surety of British concepts of identity and the extent to which we too readily believe our own myth-making. Again and again in the post-war era we keep tripping over hollow ideas of past national glories, of an Empire, military victories and hundreds of years of history that mark out our national identity. Despite the dictates of Cool Britannia, of musicians and rock-star film directors flocking to New Labour parties by 1997, the writers argue, Britain was no longer as special as we imagine, which, as teaching assistant Tobias (James Newton) drily points out, we need to make some kind of peace with.
This idea plays out at the micro-level through the story of disruptive pupil Emily Greenside (also the name of the actor) whose behaviour becomes increasingly erratic when denied a school trip to York with violent consequences. The culmination of this plot leads to one teacher insisting to the assembled group that none of the pupils are special, at least no more special than anyone else, take away the school structure, the ranking within classes and underneath everyone is the same.
At the macro-level, The Wardrobe Ensemble use English teacher Susan Belltop-Doyle’s (Jesse Meadows) lessons in which the pupils enact scenes from Arthurian legend to make points about the inculcation of those damaging national myths. In one of the oddest sections Susan hallucinates King Arthur who comes to tell her that our entire concept of identity is based on a false premise. Its silly and jarring but it skewers the polarising preoccupation with Englishness and sovereignty that led to Brexit, and continues to fuel the right-wing leave parties that feed on these emotional attachments to a largely imagined past.
All of this is subtly – and not so subtly – woven through the show, but directors Jesse Jones and Helena Middleton use a variety of interesting physical theatre approaches to entertain the crowd. In a highly stylised and fast-moving production, the cast are brought together at key moments to say or enact the same gesture simultaneously. Sometimes furniture is rapidly spun around the stage to form classrooms and other locations in a quick montage of scenes introducing Tobias to the subject’s taught at the school, at other times they use dance and movement to energise the quick-fire nature of the piece as we skim through a not very usual day-in-the-life of a 90s school.
There is a comic-book caper to some of the show’s scenes which whirl through in colourful forms, emphasised by Katharine Williams’ lighting design and the two movable doors of Lucy Sierra’s minimal but creative staging. And Education, Education, Education is a lot of fun, references to Tamagotchis and Titanic fly around a combustible staff room where everyone avoids the P.E. teacher’s pleas for a pub outing, secretly hates the over-enthusiastic headmaster and have ill-advised liaisons after the election victory. At times, it paints in big, broad strokes, with plot and character development considerably simplified creating several unlikely comic contrivances to drive the story in the right direction.
Yet, what we see in the staff room is the history of education played out in microcosm as two streams of thought clash as unresolvedly as they have for a hundred and fifty years. Educationalist Friedrich Fröbel’s nineteenth-century belief in individuality, learning through play and personalised curricula for each child is manifest in Tom England’s Mr Mills, the enthusiastic headmaster who is always a very physical presence, moving his body in waves and gesticulating wildly to indicate his softer approach and belief that the New Labour victory heralds a new dawn in school funding and individual pupil investment. He clashes with his disciplinarian deputy who equally vehemently believes that, like the Victorian schoolmasters who preceded her, that rules and punishments are the only way to create a valuable member of society.
They are supported by Tom Brennan’s Paul McIntyre whose unchecked but unapologetic personal choices inadvertently create much of the drama as he unreasonably denies Emily her trip to York and fights with Ben Vardy’s gauche P.E. teacher Mr Pashley kept on the periphery of the teaching community and amusingly asked to cover a French lesson. Meadows’s Sue is the archetype of the wafty teacher who loses control but connects with the children, while Greenslade’s version of herself is filled with teenage injustice and emotional responses she cannot control, while nonetheless showing the cycle of denial and punishment that stoke her behaviour.
However light its frame, ultimately this play has serious points to make about the short-termist approaches to education funding used cynically as a political tool to win voters. The cost, The Wardrobe Ensemble argue, are the pupils and pointedly it is them and not the teachers who appear on mass to dance enthusiastically to D Ream’s rallying call in the final moments. Pictures of the actors as they were in the 1990s flash across the back of the stage to make us think about the consequences of these policies. Those children became the actors in front of us, but in their pupil characters their future is yet to be shaped. Education, Education, Education suggests pupils should be sent into the adult world full of hope and possibility, we know now looking back that the optimism of 1997 faded as fast as the funding for schools. Without it and for as long as we refuse to face-up to who we really are as a nation, whether they know it or not, our schoolchildren don’t stand a chance.