Michelle Payne’s new comedy springs into life as part of Actors Awareness week at Theatre N16.
Once seated in the intimate theatre, the audience notice a table in disarray with cheap packets of biscuits, cups with slogans and revision guides strewn on the floor. A glimpse into the staff room is a rare experience for some, yet every member of the audience remembers their own version of the teacher’s sanctuary. Members of the audience who are teachers, past or present, feel immediately at home and on familiar territory. The common ground means a very positive reception from the start, as the lights dim and music for the title credits booms in. Payne’s ambition for this piece to become a cult TV hit is noticeable from the get-go. The use of multimedia to introduce the three characters, on their journeys in and out of teaching suggests TV credits and replicates the genre.
Quick fire one-liners keep this 50 minute piece fast moving and engages the audience throughout. The Staff Room gives an insight into the many different characters who might consider teaching, with the likes of Hugo, (Craig Webb) a youthful geography teacher doing it “for the trips”, Ria (Faye Derham) a failed physiotherapist and Alison (Hilary Murnane) an enthusiastic history teacher intending to save the world in her lunch time. Their own staff room is one of the few places that such unlikely friendships could be forged. Payne has used her experience of supply teaching to give authenticity in portraying how allegiances are formed in schools.
Despite the feel of nostalgia for the audience, this piece explores the current climate of teaching with reference to academies; “against everything I believe in” and their staff “the robots”. It’s a shame that this issue was so lightly explored even though the dialogue hinted at the writer’s views; it could have been more polemic.
There are some effective devices used; a parent’s evening where the three teachers give different perspectives on the same student, while Hugo’s photo collage aid memoire is amusing yet almost appalling.
The charm of the location of The Staff Room is enhanced by the witty exchanges among the cast. The opening conversation hints at the possibility of a more in-depth exploration with snippets of teenage mental health concerns but this is lightly mentioned among the talk of treats in the room.
All the characters reflected teachers we’ve been taught by, yet the characterisation is slightly stereotypical and at times unnecessarily exaggerated. Despite this, the audience are fully engaged by the acting abilities of the newly-qualified cast.
Payne’s follow-up to her debut Orchid is ripe for development into a possible sitcom, highlighting the continual changes to education and those who work in it.
The Staff Room played at Theatre N16 as part of Actors Awareness.