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 and Charlie Mills seeing eye-to-eye (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)
Leave a comment | tags: Alice McGowan, Andrew Pollard, Ayub Khan Din, Charlie Mills, E R Braithwaite, Eden Peppercorn, Elijah McDowell, Gwenda Hughes, Jessica Watts, Matt Crosby, Philip Morris, Polly Lister, review, The REP Birmingham, The Young REP, To Sir With Love, Tom Saunders | posted in Review, Theatre Review
KISS ME QUICKSTEP
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Thursday 10th March, 2016
Amanda Whittington’s new play is already proving popular. People flock to the New Vic because of the subject matter: a ballroom dancing competition. They come for the dancing but they stay for the humour and warmth of the characters. The story follows the fortunes of three couples. Samantha is a jaded champion, disaffected and drunk – much to the chagrin of her snake-hipped partner Lee. Nancy is a bright-eyed optimist; having met Luka, a Russian dancer online, she has her father fly him over to partner her for the competition. Meanwhile, married couple, Justin and Jodie Atherton, are facing money troubles and a run of bad luck. She is neurotic, he has a gammy knee… Most of the action takes place backstage – the compere (TV’s Alison Hammond) is a disembodied voice, divine intervention interrupting the rows and rehearsals.
In the rehearsal scenes, we glimpse the anatomy of the dances – this is thrilling in itself – but when the dance numbers come they are truly uplifting. It’s so much more impressive than watching it on the telly! Beverley Edmunds’s choreography is spot on, and it’s also dramatised to fit the action – There’s a slow-motion sequence that shows in an expressionistic way how Samantha is alienated by the whole shebang. The cast is augmented by a talented troupe from the local community, adding to the scale of the enterprise. The Blackpool ballroom is economically evoked by Dawn Allsop’s design and Daniella Beattie’s versatile lighting.
Amy Barnes keeps Samantha together, through her drunken denials to her liberation, bringing warmth to what could be a diva of a role. Ed White incorporates Lee’s drive and determination, and is a lovely mover. Hannah Edwards, a New Vic favourite, brings sweetness to Nancy and also the guts to stand up at last to her overbearing, self-appointed coach of a father (Jack Lord, both affable and menacing). Also returning to the New Vic is Isaac Stanmore (formerly Robin Hood and Dracula here!) as the Russian dancer and rent-a-Gleb Luka, thrilled to be in Blackpool – for more reasons than one, it turns out. Stanmore is an engaging presence – technically superb in the dancing (they all are, it has to be said) and exuding both strength and vulnerability – We want him to succeed. Abigail Moore’s Jodie is tightly wound (and very funny) but as soon as the compere calls her to the dance floor she becomes the consummate performer, supported perfectly by Matt Crosby as husband Justin. Their big dance number brings the house down and this is because we are invested in them as characters.
It’s a conventional play, deftly handled by resident director Theresa Heskins, who puts the humanity of the characters in the spotlight and allows the script’s metaphors and meaning to work on the audience almost subliminally. Dance = life, and it’s what you bring to the floor that counts.
Jack Lord, Hannah Edwards and Isaac Stanmore
Leave a comment | tags: Abigail Moore, Alison Hammond, Amanda Whittington, Amy barnes, Beverley Edmunds, Ed White, Hannah Edwards, Isaac Stanmore, Jack Lord, Kiss Me Quickstep, Matt Crosby, New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, review, Theresa Heskins | posted in Theatre Review