Having sold out at Edinburgh’s Pleasance Dome in August of last year, The Wardrobe Ensemble are now on tour with their current hit production Education, Education, Education, exploring the cultural importance of New Labour in the education system. Their tour will cover London, Plymouth, Cardiff, Salisbury, Southampton, Northampton, Hull and Ipswich. After the success of 1972: The Future of Sex, The Wardrobe Ensemble are keen to show again that they’re unafraid to use theatrics, over-exaggeration and mocking humour to confront 21st-Century issues.
Having received both the Scotsman Fringe First Award and The Stage Edinburgh Award whilst at Edinburgh Fringe, Education, Education, Education delves into attitudes towards responsibility and teaching after the rise of Blair’s Labour in 1997. Set in a time when Harry Potter was merely a decent novel rather than a world-spanning franchise, when kids would run around feeding Tamagotchi, a time when the UK could actually win Eurovision, this performance brings to the forefront questions about the changing state of education, delving into how we’re taught, what we have been taught, the responsibility for our upbringing and attitudes towards teaching with particular focus on schools in special measures.
In conversation with directors Jesse Jones and Helena Middleton, the development of the performance and the motifs within it were key discussion points. Initially, the performance had a very different shape as it was being developed, as Jones explained that the importance of 2017 being the 20th anniversary of the election of Blair: “the genesis of Education comes this – initially the idea was to use a school to create a blow-for-blow retelling of the rise and fall of Labour. For example we would have transposed the Foot and Mouth epidemic into an outbreak of headlice in the school.’ Of course, as the performance developed the political environment changed, and Jesse noted that “in the process of researching and developing it, Brexit happened, we had a Labour leadership election, another general election – those things started to creep in’ and have most definitely led to influencing the representation of education on-stage.
Nationalism is a key theme in Education and it explores the changes in our attitudes towards Great Britain as a nation. This comes through the repeated symbol of the Union Jack, which Middleton explained the importance of seeing in 1997. ‘Pre-Iraq the flag had completely different connotations and was a symbol of pride in a nation. Now if we see a Union Jack outside of someone’s window we question what that person’s beliefs are and we were really interested in that.” This is reflected in the performance with Union Jack bunting, flags and the importance of the Cool Britannia movement in the 1990s perpetuated throughout, exploring not only a pride in their country but pride in teaching, too.
An important point within this play was replicating authentic characters in the form of the teaching staff and The Wardrobe Ensemble ensured this as Jones explained, “a big part of our process was to get people in to talk to us. We brought in some of our old teachers and we interviewed some, as well as talking to friends who are teachers now”, allowing this performance to really develop the dichotomy between how teachers in the late 1990s were treated in comparison to now. This led to the development of certain elements – tense relationships between the school’s optimistic headmaster, Mr Mills (Tom England) and the school’s far more capable but discipline-focused deputy head, and the distant Mr Pashley (Ben Vardy), who finds solace in confiscated digital pets, all come from talking with staff during the Blairite years as money was pushed towards the education system.
All of this however is a backdrop to the main plot, focusing around one student. Emily Greenslade (who shares the name with her actress) is a talented but unruly student who finds herself left off the list for a school trip. This snapshot of a day in late-90s comprehensive school follows Greenslade as she seeks what she considers justice in a school seeking to impress the Princess Anne, who for some reason is turning up to the school’s awards assembly. The far-reaching consequences of her actions are central to the plot as cracks between the optimistic and lively façade of the newly-invigorated school begin to show.
Education, Education, Education is playing Shoreditch Town Hall from April 17th to April 21st 2018 as part of its 8 week tour. Further details and tickets to all of their upcoming dates can be found at http://www.thewardrobeensemble.com.