Tag Archives: Alice McGowan

Old School

TO SIR, WITH LOVE

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 27th April, 2017

E.R. Braithwaite’s classic, autobiographical story of his post-war teaching experiences in an inner-city school is best known to us from the Sidney Poitier film. Here, Ayub Khan-Din adapts the original book for this period piece that seems starkly relevant to today. Issues of discipline in schools, a curriculum that does not meet the needs of the students or prepare them for the real world… Costumes and popular music aside, this play could be a contemporary piece – and I say that with more than a touch of dismay: the racial prejudice portrayed on stage is rearing its ugly head with renewed vigour in a Britain that has forgotten why we fought the War in the first place.

Philip Morris makes a dignified Braithwaite, stumbling into teaching almost against his will.  He is tasked with bringing civilisation to the natives, who are restless – to put it mildly.  Morris is a strong presence, bringing out the character’s wry humour as well as his growing passion for the job.  Andrew Pollard lights up the stage as ahead-of-his-time, liberal headteacher, Mr Florian; a warm and wise embodiment of educational ideals, but not without his cringeworthy moments, such as his participation in the school dance!  Polly Lister dresses down as chirpy, down-to-earth Miss Clintridge, delivering most of the humour of the piece, looking like Victoria Wood in a sketch but sounding like Mrs Overall.  Jessica Watts adds elegance as Braithwaite’s love interest, Miss Blanchard, while Matt Crosby’s cynical Mr Weston is a more characterisation than he first appears.  It seems Braithwaite humanises everyone, and not just the kids.

Among the kids, who are all rather good, Eden Peppercorn stands out as the outspoken Monica Page, Elijah McDowell as Seales, Alice McGowan as smitten Pamela Dare… Charlie Mills excels as surly troublemaker Denham, whose journey to civilised behaviour is the longest but also the most touching.  The world is a better place, the play reminds us, when everyone treats everyone with respect.

The story has become a template for a genre: teacher tames tough kids and everyone learns a lesson, but Braithwaite’s story remains the best, revealing its warmth without resorting to sentimentality.  Co-directed by Gwenda Hughes and Tom Saunders, this production gives members of the Young Rep the opportunity to work alongside adult professionals.  Age and size apart, there is little between them to mark the difference.

Philip Morris as Rick Braithwaite & Charlie Mills as Denhan_c Graeme Braidwood

Philip Morris and Charlie Mills seeing eye-to-eye (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


Life Lessons

THE ROTTERS’ CLUB

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 5th April, 2016

 

Richard Cameron’s adaptation of Jonathan Coe’s novel of schoolboy life in Birmingham in the turbulent decade of the 1970s, comes to the REP stage in a Young Rep production.  A talented ensemble of young actors brings Coe’s characters to energetic life.  The plot unfolds in an episodic, rather cinematic fashion but Gwenda Hughes’s direction keeps the action clear, and linked by slick and stylish transitions.  It’s a bit History Boys with its scenes of classroom banter but we focus on the lives of a couple of characters: would-be writer Ben Trotter (or Bent Rotter as his cronies would have it) and Claire Newman, a girl who has an unrequited crush on Ben and whose big sister is up to all sorts of no good with a married man.

It’s a tale of innocence waiting to be lost, the rites of passage of the education system, the trials of puberty, set against the backdrop of industrial unrest, terrorist atrocity, and power cuts.  The setting is familiar from memory – and from much of today’s news!

Anna Bradley is excellent as Claire, turning out to be more sensible than her love-struck and doomed older sister Miriam (Jasmin Melissa Hylton).  Much of the show’s broad humour comes from Haris Myers as class clown Harding – a compelling stage presence.  Harding also brings to light the darker side of race relations of those days – again, we’d like to think times have changed…  Alice McGowan makes an impression as Lois Trotter, Ben’s sister, deeply affected by a bomb in a Birmingham pub, and I especially enjoyed Daniel Carter’s portrayal of her boyfriend Malcolm – the end of the first act is sensitively handled and powerfully done, when characters’ lives are changed forever by terrible, external events.

Yusuf Niazi is good fun as Ben’s mate Chase, Adnahn Silvestro brings passion and energy to left-wing idealist Doug, while Maggie McGuire Smith captures the vanity and pretentiousness of Cicely on whom Ben has a crush.  There is strong support from Andrew Morrin as Culpepper and Louis Sutherland as Richards – the conflict that erupts between these two brings most of the second act’s drama.

But holding the show together is an affable performance from Charlie Mills as the likeable Ben.  He delivers wordy monologues with aplomb, shows us the developing maturity of the character (the plot nips back and forth in time a bit), all with humour, sensitivity and truth.  Ben goes through all the usual teenage anguish – Mills imbues him with a spark of individuality that makes him the kind of kid you would have liked to have been growing up.

It’s an engaging and enjoyable piece – the local references are nostalgia for some, ancient history for others.  I would have liked a bit more period music to enrich the 70s feel, but that’s nit-picking on my part.  The young, skilful cast carry it off in impressive and effective fashion – and I don’t mean Malcolm’s sheepskin coat!

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Class acts: Charlie Mills and Yusuf Niazi (Photo: Robert Day)