In this two-hander by Billy Cowan, you could say that much of the real action takes place off-stage – but the play is no less tense for that. The writing is crisp and direct, and while the characters are instantly recognisable from everyday life, nuanced performances ensure they are never caricatures. The script delivers important messages, but it’s also involving and very watchable; the often-witty dialogue holds your interest in the developing relationship between the two protagonists.
Penelope McDonald plays a world-weary Deputy Headteacher, half in love with and half jaded by her elevated status. She jousts with a new teacher over the plight of an unlucky pupil – and nothing gets done. As Ms Lawson, Emma Romy-Jones embodies in her hunched stance a slightly cowering defiance: she can’t let go of her intuition that something bad is going on, but is unable to convince her superior that action is required.
The play explores the continual tension between two characteristics, both seen as necessary in the teaching profession: a thick skin, and an idealistic empathy with the pupils. That central conflict is realistically and convincingly drawn, summed up in the show’s strapline “Those who stay aren’t the ones who care”. That’s a warning which the Deputy Head delivers to Ms Lawson, at the same time as telling her that she is a very bright and capable teacher.
The play is simply staged, foregrounding the two characters and throwing the focus onto their words. The actors’ crystal-clear diction also helps; these were faultless performances. Yet ironically, the script begins with a memorable depiction of the Deputy Head literally not listening to the younger teacher – interrupting her, and as Ms Lawson says, treating her like a child. It’s an undermining mechanism which anyone who’s worked in a bad school will recognise: the lofty and wordy approach from on high, coupled with an expectation that the inexperienced teacher will meekly listen and absorb.
This is, of course, is how complacent cultures get built – and the play cleverly takes apart the Deputy Head’s stance, not by overtly criticising it but by letting her speak for herself. There’s a lovely depiction of the tyranny of the phone call over face-to-face conversation, something to think about next time you say “Oh I must get this” and leave your real-world companion in listen-only limbo. And that’s just one example of the great writing that permeates the play, with seemingly minor acts of observation together illuminating the whole. The full armoury of those in positions of power is on display; I liked the Deputy Head’s manipulative disclosure of things in her personal life, pieces of information released to prove that she’s human, and to knock Ms Lawson off her guard.
Despite all this, however, the older teacher isn’t an entirely unsympathetic character. She is no doubt capable, energetic and very over-worked, which has encouraged her to cover up her humanity such that she cannot properly listen at first. When she’s finally persuaded to tune in, the threat implicit in hearing what her colleague is saying overwhelms her.
So there is much debate that could arise from this play, but it wears its message lightly. Strong, clear writing and characterisation make it a vey watchable and enjoyable hour, filled with darkly humorous moments. It deserved the enthusiastic applause it received at the end.