Tag Archives: To Sir With Love

Old School


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)

Class War


Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 22nd October, 2013

E R Braithwaite’s autobiographical story covers familiar ground.  It’s not the first tale (and definitely not the last) to deal with an unruly class of kids who are eventually tamed by an unconventional teacher.  There are ups and downs and plenty of respect is earned along the way.  The storyline has become something of a cliché but at least Braithwaite actually lived it.

Set in those first few years of optimism after the end of WW2, the production brings to light many parallels with today’s education system and indeed society beyond.  Headmaster Florian (Matthew Kelly, effortlessly exuding warmth and status) looks forward to some of the more progressive methods of the 60s and 70s – the audience finds itself looking back.  Our incumbent Secretary of State for Education seems hell-bent on a return to the kind of rote-learning and imparting of useless facts against which Florian fights so passionately.  Braithwaite learns the hard way that Florian’s methods and philosophy reap dividends and he blossoms in tandem with his charges.  He’s an unqualified teacher and the play demonstrates very clearly the pitfalls a lack of professional training can bring.  Braithwaite learns that it’s not enough to spout about 19th century art and literature, just because that is what he encountered during his own schooling.

And so the play, rather than evoking nostalgia, stirs us with its relevance.  Outside school, Braithwaite faces racial prejudice and while we can say we have come a long way (the gasps of dismay and shocked laughs from the audience whenever a racist remark is made on stage, for example) there is still prejudice within our supposedly enlightened society, casual and institutionalised.  Look at our government’s approach to immigration, for example, and the myths perpetrated to foster prejudice and ignorance.

As Braithwaite, Ansu Kabia is a dignified presence, keeping a lid on his outrage and exuding humour and warmth.  The scenes he share with Matthew Kelly are particularly strong.  He is supported by a class of unruly teenagers – and it’s pleasing to hear that their accents are in keeping with the period too.  Harriet Ballard’s Monica is funny as a character study as well as for her role in the drama. Mykola Allen leads the resistance as Denham, the toughest nut to crack, and Kerron Darby is equally effective as mixed race Seales.  Paul Kemp spouts most of the unsavoury slurs as old-school (heh!) teacher Weston, who also learns to respect the kids and Braithwaite as people.

The kids dance and jive (lindy-hopping or something like that) through the scene transitions, keeping the energy levels high.  Mike Britton’s set reminds us of the bombings London endured, but also suggests an institution in ruins – by extension, the education system in this country.  Director Mark Babych delivers the heart-warming payoff you expect, keeping mawkishness at bay – that’s the beauty of Ayub Khan Din’s adaptation of Braithwaite’s book: it evokes the era but also reflects our present.  The production satisfies our expectations of this type of story but also has a salient point to make about the nation today.


Penned-up aggression: Ansu Kabia and Mykola Allen disagree over an item of stationery