Brightest and Best begins as a caustic portrayal of the City rat race, and metamorphoses into a sophisticated musing on teaching. It follows the story of Rob (William Owen), who quits his high pressure career in management consultancy to teach English to bored and affluent sixth formers at a down-market private school. What starts as a dream, away from the high octane bullshit of the consultancy world, turns out to be much more challenging than Rob imagines.
This production packs a punch. Directed with flamboyance and panache by Royal Court alumna Natalie Ibu, this is much more stylish and highly polished than your usual fringe production. Seamlessly choreographed, even the set changes are satisfying to watch. It is full of energy and has some glistening performances. It also sustains itself successfully for two and a half hours, a rare and impressive feat on the fringe.
Highlights in performance come from the schoolroom scenes. Wonderfully cast are the three problem pupils, Raisha (Nadia Giscir), Jenny (Anna Tierney) and Greg (Jack Johns). Part of the brilliance comes from the accuracy of the dialogue: writer Matt Morrison’s experience as an A-level Drama teacher has served him well for these scenes. However, the three actors embody their young characters masterfully; what could be an excruciating parody of teenage angst is executed with a bright, hard, irresistible truth that arrests the audience, and makes us sit up and listen.
While this is a show about teaching, it is also a show about the City. Unfortunately, I’d be willing to bet that Morrison has much less direct experience of management consultants and investment bankers than he does of sixth formers, and it shows in his writing. The truth of the classroom scenes far outshines the believability of the consultants and bankers.
Kate (Hetty Abbott) and Dan (James Baldwin), the protagonist’s banker girlfriend and consultant best mate are irritatingly two-dimensional. Abbott’s performance is mannered and over exaggerated in a piece that thrives on its realism, and Baldwin is given so little texture that he cannot help but play Dan as a basic wanker. The presentation of the ‘rat race’ City had the whiff of lefty arty smugness about it, bordering on caricature. A much more interesting parallel between consultancy and teaching was gestured at, but not realised: that both offer unrealistic expectations and make impossible demands of individuals.
This would have been a much more interesting piece had Morrison explored the subtleties and complexities of City work and lifestyle. Today, it is too easy to present City workers as blanket baddies: bored with their lives, unhappy in their jobs and only interested in the material gain. At one stage, Dan implies his, and the only, major goal is to work like a dog, make his million and retire at 40. While you only need to look at a newspaper to see that the City is far from a perfect, or even a moral, institution, Brightest and Best was too heavy handed in its criticism. It gestured towards the message that the City is too big to fail, and individuals are too small to count. Drawing the parallel between this and the British education system is an insightful and fascinating notion: Brightest and Best almost gets there, but just misses.
In spite of my quibble with the texture and characterisation, this show is among the best you will see on the fringe at the moment. It lays out ideas for discussion and dissection, and its arguments, though incomplete, have really stayed with me. It is worth seeing just for the excellent direction and 100-watt performances from its young cast. If not a fair critique of the City, it is certainly a showcase of the brightest and best of young British theatre makers on the scene today.
Brightest and Best is playing at the Halfmoon Theatre in Herne Hill, for more information see the Halfmoon Theatre’s website.