This play about schools in the 1980s was scheduled to play in the Hazlitt theatre, Maidstone, on 18-19 April as part of a six month tour with performances in many towns. I bought tickets for 19 April, keen to see both the play and the theatre for the first time.
The press release on the play states:
“FROM TIK TOK TO REMOTE LEARNING – THE CLASSIC AND POPULAR PLAY BY JOHN GODBER HAS BEEN LOVINGLY UPDATED BY THE WRITER TO REFLECT THE CHALLENGES OF STUDENTS TODAY.
Directed by Adrian McDougall, Teechers Leavers ’22 stars Ciara Morris (The Play That Goes Wrong, Beast Quest) as Gail, Michael Ayiotis (The Sun, The Mountain and Me) as Salty and Terenia Barlow (Bridgerton) as Hobby.”
It is a play which requires the three actors (two females and one male) to play various characters with quick switches from being school students to teachers and back again.
Dialogue of Teechers Leavers
The set required is minimal, just a few classroom tables and chairs. Most of the dialogue is either between the three school-leavers about their experiences at this rundown secondary school, or three teachers either in the staffroom or at school functions. There is also the interaction between the disillusioned school-leavers who gradually get drawn into telling of their school experiences in drama sessions under the new teacher, Miss Nixon.
As a trained teacher (of English, not of drama) who briefly experienced a variety of schools as a supply teacher, I was fascinated to watch her classroom management techniques. She was brilliant in getting to understand where the students were coming from and in drawing them into drama. She faced numerous difficulties just in finding a place to hold her timetabled lessons, being constantly relocated from main hall to other mostly unsuitable spaces. Her argument with a cleaner who just wanted to do her job is an amusing example of conflict which occurs in many educational and community settings as people try to make the best use of scarce community rooms. I also loved the scenes in the staff-room where new staff always found it hard to get a seat as the older teachers already occupied their habitual seats by hierarchy, a tendency we used to joke about as trainee teachers and which I experienced for a short time when I was one of two female teachers in a male grammar-school staff room.
Drama in secondary school
The play was written at a time when it was feared that drama was being downgraded in the curriculum. Careers on stage might be difficult, but drama education helps any student gain confidence for challenges of growing up and launching into independence. But could a secondary modern school like Whitewall afford the facilities needed? Music, art and drama are well provided for in private schools like the neighbouring St Georges. But in Whitewall students had to choose between the three, and drama teachers tended to give up rather frequently.
Not Miss Nixon, who was of different mettle and able to push through until the end of term performance.
The theme of the contrast between the secondary modern school, “Whitewall”, and the private school, “St Georges”, was noted both in the staff room conversations and in the students’ awareness that they were being treated as inferior. The twist in the plot is that Miss Nixon, who proudly claims she herself comes from a council estate, goes for interview at St Georges – and gets the job ! In Kent, which has retained its selective schools, this contrast between different schools may now be blurred by confusing academy structures, but the basic questions of differential resourcing and underlying class differences in catchment areas might still apply.
Exploring many roles
I can see why this play is often set in the drama curriculum. It has a school setting and deals with episodes the teenage students would identify with. It is also about drama, so allowing exploration of how actors play many roles, how to make performance lively with minimal sets, how to do a play within a play.
The audience at the Hazlitt consisted of about 60 girls from Maidstone Grammar, their teacher and two other staff members, plus about 10 of the general public. I talked briefly to the teacher and a group of girls. They were pleased this play had come to Maidstone and praised the lively performance by the three actors.
Sad at low attendance
I was rather shocked at the low attendance, especially as the performance the previous night had been cancelled. Is live theatre in England going the way of large-screen cinema, undermined by Netflix and the ease of watching all on TV? At several times in this play, “the nation of Shakespeare” was spoken of, with the expectation that drama should be promoted and resourced. Whereas I am glad that local schools are studying drama (girls only it seems), I am sad that not more of the local public supports such a local theatre as Hazlitt, which has convenient facilities (easy to walk to from the railway station) and well-advertised schedule of performances. People might murmur “cost of living crisis”, “heat or eat”, but from what I can see there are still plenty of customers eating out for fast food, and probably many more ordering it in while they watch TV. So I agree with the challenge – let the nation of Shakespeare support local theatre!