It’s the middle of the 1980’s. Margaret Thatcher is at the height of her power; but she’s threatened by an industrial dispute, a year-long coal-miners’ strike which threatens to bring her government to its knees. As the quarrel grows ever uglier, striking miners travel far from their home-towns, picketing the lorries moving stockpiled coal. Frank is one such miner, and he’s found himself a billet with a sympathetic group of students - who offer him a sofa in the flat they share. But the students are modern feminist thinkers, and Frank… well, Frank isn’t.
Remarkably, this is the first full production of a play written in 1987, just a couple of years after the end of the miners’ strike. That heritage shows: playwright Pete Barrett’s script has the ring of authenticity to it, tracking the increasing tensions of the miners’ strike and neatly echoing some notorious events I just about remember from my own childhood. A side-plot involving a relationship between a lecturer and a student is another reminder of how times have changed; I’m not saying that it wouldn’t happen nowadays, but it certainly wouldn’t be so readily accepted.
Yet for all its political back-story, this is first and foremost a comedy. There are some very witty lines and a couple of well-built set-pieces, all delivered with masterful comic timing by a strong ensemble cast. The obvious contrast between Frank and the students is complemented by the differences between them: the naive Claire and the firebrand Rachel conspire against the sensible Emma, who rises magnificently above their gossip. Even that libidinous lecturer is a humorous figure, hopelessly out-of-place with his cut-above accent and gloriously awful jumpers.
Perhaps it’s all a little too good-natured. The culture clash never quite comes to the boil, or even really simmers; everyone’s quick to see past the surface tarnish, and spot the gold beneath. To me, that’s a missed opportunity for some heightened comedy, or some genuine risk and drama. At one point it looks like Rachel’s zero-tolerance style of feminism is going to have an unintended violent consequence - but the moment of tension passes quickly, and is resolved to everyone’s satisfaction by simply “having a word”.
It’s a crowded storyline - involving not one but two extramarital affairs - and there are times near the start when some of the characters feel a little like hangers-on. But each has earned their place by the end, when a couple of surprise arrivals inject a new axis of humour and remind us that there’s a world outside the bubble of the student flat. We know that it won’t end well for the miners, but we can still hope for the best for Frank himself; the crisis when it comes is poignant, rounding out the themes of honour and betrayal which course beneath the surface of the script.
Further Education is a nicely-balanced piece, which uses a real -and very serious historical story as the backdrop for an entertaining domestic comedy. Sometimes it hits almost farcical heights, but it never strays so far from reality that you forget the human emotions at its heart. It’s a shame the world had to wait thirty years to see it, but it’s a true delight to see it finally on the stage. Credit is due to writer Pete Barrett - and to everyone involved in realising his vision with such sensitivity and comic vim.