As the controversy over educational standards, free schools and tuition fees seethes on, the Bush Theatre marches straight to the top of the class for commissioning a mini-season on the subject of education. Next week sees the unveiling of Steve Waters' Little Platoons, about a group of West London parents who are driven to try and set up their own "free school". But the season kicks off now with The Knowledge, a punchy, appallingly funny play by former teacher John Donnelly which pitches us headlong into the kind of educational establishment that Waters' parents are frantic to avoid.
At a failing secondary school in Tilbury, Essex, Zoe arrives as a new, probationary English teacher determined to make a difference in the lives of these culturally deprived kids. But she's immediately shunted into the hell-hole of a citizenship class with a quartet of infamously uncontrollable 15 year olds. The indefatigably lewd and intimidating Mickey – brilliantly played by Joe Cole as the kind of resentful, destructive thicko who is nonetheless A-star at nosing out the vulnerabilities of his prey – realises that he can get away with murder because the school is too worried about its reputation for exclusions to boot him out.
In the acknowledgements section of the published text, Donnelly includes the stirring sentiment: "May we educate our children well enough that they oppose our own follies". It would make an ironic epigraph to a blackly comic play that shows, by contrast, middle-class pedagogues and their working-class charges dragging one another down as joint casualties of an over-stretched educational economy which expects teachers to be social workers and of hyper-sexualised, victim-culture where teenagers understand how to wield the weapons of come-on and complaint.
Zoe is herself an intriguingly flawed figure, with Joanne Froggatt beautifully bringing out her flaky mix of idealism, emotional vulnerability and opportunistic calculation. It is not at all clever of her to sleep with her learning-mentor Maz (excellent Christopher Simpson). Nor should he have been tempted by a professional bribe into silence and rule-bending to suit Ofsted inspectors by Andrew Woodall's hilariously world-weary head of department. When a drunken Zoe is manoeuvred into a sexually compromising position by a sensitive, but manipulative black pupil (a subtly unknowable Kerron Derby), the proceedings develop a nerve-racking tragic momentum.
With chalky blackboards covering all four walls of the Bush and the audience sitting round the action, you feel hideously trapped in this school – not so much a blackboard jungle as a blackboard mausoleum. Charlotte Gwinner's production, though, is wonderfully dynamic and performed with a scabrous edge. There are a couple of implausible 11th-hour personality changes and some may feel that the staff Christmas party where the teachers dress up as their pupils underlines Donnelly's point too obviously. But about the disturbing urgency and stinging humour of the piece, there can be only one school of thought.
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