Banter Productions at Jermyn Street Theatre
Education, Education, Education. That's the theme, and the over-arching title, of Jonathan Lewis's new trilogy. Looking at the system through the eyes of the teachers, the parents, and first, here, the students.
Confined in exclusion between Politics and Philosophy A-level exams, they brag, they whinge, they indulge in banter that's borderline bullying. Laddishness shades into loutishness. Confidence tips over into arrogance. There's war between the sexes. Eleven eighteen-year-olds – perhaps slightly too many for the format and the venue – about to leave their “top London private school” for university.
Their personalities – and there are some very recognizable characters here – are revealed not only in the fizzing, fast-paced cross-talk but also, cleverly, in monologues. The bell goes, the others freeze as, against an appropriate music track, each gives an ironic, or cynical, or honest insight into their feelings before stepping back into the action. Jack Bass, as the troubled Aldous – he's stupidly answered the Imperial Presidency question, to the unfeeling scorn of his class-mates – has one of the best, a cheesy cinema commercial, excellently delivered. We hear the language of the Year Book, of the pimped Personal Statement.
We're shown a very mixed bunch – though they lack the diversity the script suggests – and all the performances are accurately, often passionately, observed. Perhaps not surprising, since these non-professional performers are hardly out of school themselves, and the piece was workshopped with students from several independent schools.
At opposite ends of the maturity spectrum – though both clearly very bright – are Bella [Eve Delaney] with her revision Rolodex, and AJ Lewis's gobby Zachir, his “horrible personality” not without its streetwise charm. There's the quiet JJ [Christian Hines], who's rebelled, disastrously but intelligently, in the exam room, and cool Cal [Joe Taylor]. Victims, too – Isabella Caley's Talia, and Finlay Stroud's Louis, the butt of a particularly unpleasant “revision initiation”, who finally has a melt-down over a tuna sandwich.
They should be supervised, of course. But “Gandalf” has trouble with stairs, so it's the end of Act One before Mr Preston [Joe Layton] arrives. A slightly less believable character than the kids, though their interactions with him are, at least at first, very well observed.
In Act Two there's more drama, more conflict and confrontation, as we stray into Waterloo Road territory – Jeremy Kyle is several times invoked. And there are some very implausible developments.
But the atmosphere is so tense in the pressure-cooker of the third-floor music room, and the performances are so strong, that the audience is carried along with the frenetic, carefully plotted action.
This is not The History Boys – though the trousers do come off – it's less witty, but confronts more hard truths about a system that puts so much pressure on young people at the most vulnerable stage of their lives, where education puts hurdles in place of personal fulfilment, and in which grades are a matter of life and death.