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School of thought: Things can only get better

REVIEW

Education, Education, Education

Trafalgar Studios, London ★★☆☆☆

REMEMBER those heady days in the late 1990s when we won Eurovision, almost won Euro 96 and Tony Blair won the keys to Downing Street? In this devised piece, The Wardrobe Ensemble attempt to recapture that mood of optimism, which today feels as defunct as a CD player, through the tribulations of a comprehensive school on the day after the 1997 general election.

For, as the teachers nurse hangovers while haplessly attempting to host a parent’s open day, political elation keeps coming up against the legacy of Thatcherism that has left the school so underfunded it can barely afford classrooms, let alone textbooks.

Our guide through this whirligig show, which features teachers dancing madly to 1990s Britpop and an awful lot of slamming doors, is a visiting German exchange teacher (James Newton, excellent) whose deadpan commentary points up the political absurdity of a school system on the verge of collapse.

The teachers themselves are a mixed bunch: an unloved PE teacher obsessed with a pupil’s confiscated Tamagotchi; a sociopathic head of discipline who keeps firing an imaginary Uzi; the hounded English teacher who passionately believes in bringing literature to life. The hero, however, is Emily, the only pupil we see and a chronically misunderstood rebel who is thus always in trouble.

Yet this curious piece relies on broad comedy and retro gesture — the soundtrack, Geri Halliwell’s union jack dress, all that bloody dancing — at the expense of anything much to say. What you want is some sense of how Labour’s Things Can Only Get Better ended up going so wrong; what you get is merely the bittersweet taste of nostalgia. It’s an effortful way to spend 75 minutes.