As I descended the steps towards my ‘new school’, Saint Dumbiedykes, I felt a flutter in my chest of something curiously like nerves. Of course this is ridiculous – Back to School is a site-specific theatrical experience, and going to school is nothing like interactive theatre – but something about me bought into the whole experience enough to feel a sliver of pre-school anxiety. Theatre only works when an audience are willing to suspend their disbelief, which does strange things when they themselves are part of the show, as you are here.
The brainchild of Clementine Wade, who is the founder of Arty Kamikaze Productions and also plays the role of the headteacher, Back to School is billed as ‘part-comedy, part-social experiment’, and it’s easy to derive half the enjoyment from watching your fellow audience members. From the moment the lollipop lady meets you at the Pleasance Courtyard, you are infantilised, patronised, coddled and simply pushed from place to place; you are told what to do and where to go, ostensibly not because they are actors with a limited range of things to show you, but because you are a child.
On arrival, the audience are given a locker, exercise book and name tag before being sorted into three different form classes. Each of these groups attend the lessons in a different order and the narratives taking place in these rooms are moving steadily along, so it’s safe to assume that there are at least three different experiences of the show. In reality, though, there are probably several more, as there are lots of little extras that you may be chosen at random for. I was removed from my science class for a word with the headmistress; during PE, I saw her trying to ride a tandem bike with another audience member.
It is clear that every element of Back to School has been considered very deeply. It was arguably the décor of the school I found most effective, from the posters lining the walls to the small chairs in assembly: everything about their site had been altered very cleverly and felt extremely realistic.
As well as the lessons, there is a lunch break with appropriate lunchtime clubs, a school photo and even a final exam. Again, it is interesting here to see the reactions of the people around you. Having graduated from university only last month, I found it difficult to be handed even a ridiculous, joke-filled exam paper with no consequences and not attempt to complete it properly, aware as I was that this was silly and pointless. But several of the audience members in my so-called form class were clearly enjoying the chance to go back and misbehave this time. One was wearing her tie around her head; another was writing swear words for every answer.
Back to School’s greatest strength is also its biggest problem: it involves and in some ways relies on the audience, and some people simply won’t enjoy this or want to play ball. Several of the other people in my group were more reserved and clearly, at times, uncomfortable with being asked to participate. But if being made part of the show is something you enjoy, it’s definitely time to enroll at Saint Dumbiedykes.
**** – 4 Stars
Back To School is playing at Pleasance at Braidwood Centre until 26 August as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. For more information and tickets, see the Edinburgh Fringe website.