It’s the arts they come for first. Not just in the bright fictions of Ryan Murphy’s rainbow-coloured Glee, in which the eponymous club must sing its heart out merely to maintain its place on the curriculum, but in the unimaginative monochrome of a seemingly interminable Conservative Government, who, in 2019, produced a series of adverts advocating the advantages of those in the performing arts retraining in ‘cyber’.
Bursting with all the things they have to say, and the stage on which to say it, the three pupils of the notional Whitewall Academy, a recognisably Northern twin to Glee’s William McKinley High, can barely contain themselves, wandering through the auditorium before the performance proper, sewing anxiety among those of us who prefer the comfort of an unbroken fourth wall. The conceit is that they’re performing their end of term project, one that it rapidly emerges is a barely fictionalised account of their time with Miss Harris, the drama teacher who has taken them from the crayons of graffiti to the perfume of self-expression.
Originally produced by Hull Truck Theatre at the time of Margaret Thatcher’s third election victory, John Godber’s play has been brought up to speed by Blackeyed Theatre with the messages of this decade’s social media, and repopulated by its Spotify playlists. Pertinently enough, the dramas scroll past beneath the gathering shadows of an Ofsted report, rendered rawly topical by the recent loss to suicide of headteacher, Ruth Perry, in response to a swingeing downgrading of her own school’s rating, following one such inspection.
Effectively a three-hander, Teechers Leavers ’22 requires much of its principles, each of whom is excellent. Rooted in the character of Salty, who, in his more exuberant moments displays the expressive elasticity of a young Kenneth Williams, Michael Ayiotis is also given free rein to add the swish of Maggie Smith to Salty’s impersonation of headmistress, Mrs Parry. Likewise, Ciara Morris as Gail brings something of Maxine Peake’s talent for controlled overstatement to her depictions of a jobsworth caretaker and the equestrian flounce of P.E. teacher, Jackie Prime. Completing the triangle, Terenia Barlow tightropes perceptively between Hobby, the pupil, and the conjured ‘Miss Nixon’, the idealised version of the idolised teacher.
Under the assured direction of Adrian McDougall, scenes switch past at Snapchat speed, reeling off a series of comedic set pieces, from the slouch and scrape of adolescence’s exaggerated reluctance to ‘get a chair’ to the throwaway plight of a pupil bewildered by the timetable, lost and cross-legged with the need for the bathroom. Still, just as the Monster drink jitter of this freneticism threatens to lose its fizz, more serious themes assert themselves, from the lower case seating politics of the staff room to the upper case politics of private education.
When the bell rings, bringing the curtain down on the play within the play, it seems to give the three permission to step out from behind the fictions they’ve been half-hiding behind, and to show how, through adopting the dialogue of others, they’ve been able to find the confidence to speak with their own voices. As such, their collective “see ya” is a more affecting farewell than the more permanent send-off in 1939’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips in allowing Barlow to embody the anger of abandonment that lies just under the skin of the pleading “Miss, don’t leave”.
If it’s the arts they come for first, Salty has already spoken up for all of them when, having shed the Kevlar of his bravado, he asked the headmistress rhetorically, “Is it that drama makes you question stuff?”. Without ever feeling like a lecture, the play makes its points powerfully. A passionate defence, not only of the arts but of an education system in which advantage is afforded not only to those who can afford it, the heart of Teechers Leavers ’22 beats beyond the last echo of its belly laughs. As a final piece of coursework, it earns its A*.
Main image: credit Savannah Photographic
Teechers Leaver’s ’22 is touring across the UK. For more information on ticket prices and show dates, click here.