at the Audrey Longman Studio, Brentwood Theatre
Everyone enjoys hearing tales out of school – from Greyfriars to Grange Hill, not to mention those all-seeing flies on the classroom wall.
Terry Burns' terrific one-man show has an impressively authentic ring. It follows naïve NQT Michael England, thrown in at the deep end trying to teach English to Year 11 Set 5 in “Landfill” Comprehensive.
The characters we meet are inspired by real-life staff and students from Burns' own time at the chalk-face.
In a brilliant tour-de-force, he takes us to Cougher's Corner, where colleagues share banter and a break-time fag. Key players in the story are John Cooper, the loud-mouthed bully who's Michael's mentor, shy Simone, who reads Yeats and idolizes her teacher, Wayne, rapper, boxer and troublemaker, and Parveet, troubled poet and class swot, who, like Posner in History Boys, sits at the back and takes notes, and whose rise to literary fame gives the piece its shape. There's even time to meet Michael's middle-class parents.
These very recognizable characters are beautifully realised in Clara Onyemere's economical production – Cooper, addicted to pickled eggs, is genuinely scary, appallingly unpleasant. Simone is touchingly emotional, Wayne is revealed as much more than his dickhead reputation – his rap is a highlight of the show.
Perhaps the “no smoke without fire” crisis is predictable, and plays out slightly improbably, but by that time we're so involved with mild-mannered Mr England and his inner-city class of “muppets” that we're more than happy to go along with it. Many questions are left unanswered, loose ends untied, but the dénouement, when it comes, is both unexpected and profoundly moving.