September 20 2015
New play asks vital questions about private/state split and whether pushy parents help or hinder children’s life chances…
EDUCATION, education, education – was the mantra Tony Blair espoused in his successful bid to become prime minister.
This is the theme that has driven Tamsin Oglesby’s new play, “Future Conditional”.
It has a young Pakistani girl (Nikki Patel as Alia) at the heart of the play and it is in many ways a thought-provoking and stimulating exploration of the values various social groups place on education.
It isn’t half as dry that might sound there – and it is something of a statement for new Old Vic artistic director Matthew Warchus, who has taken over from Hollywood star, Kevin Spacey, and directs this particular production.
Oglesby succeeds in getting us to invest emotionally in the characters – especially Alia and her teacher Crane, played by comedian and TV quiz host, Rob Brydon.
We actually don’t see them together very much – in fact some of the scenes feature Crane on his own talking to imaginary students rather than real ones (whether this was a deliberate point about the invisibility of some pupils is a fair insight, but with plenty of the cast doubling up as pupils it wasn’t exactly obvious).
What is good is that Alia’s ethnicity is just one part of a tricky equation and it is hugely topical as she is a refugee and not an immigrant in the sense of someone whose family came to the UK voluntarily.
Her status as such is only referred to directly at the end, and we learn the real circumstances of her perilous flight, though it is subtly signposted along the way.
Into this mix are two other groups – a gaggle of mothers who wait patiently for their offspring at the school gates and swap stories about their children and what secondary school they’re looking to secure for their little Johnny or Gemma or Mohammad; and a group of (possibly government?) policy advisors charged with getting England and Wales up the global league table for education.
By the end of the play, these seemingly disparate groups are brought into contact and the relevance to each other shines through from all angles.
This play asks some big questions and most parents will be able to relate them – more so if they have a conscience and money.
The attraction of going private has always been a strong one in the Asian community and there are many who send their children to independent schools as a badge of honour and pride – not just because it may be educationally beneficial.
Whether that is an attractive stance – is asked by Oglesby, but in a different white, middle-class guise – as is the desire to get your child into a good academic school (slightly fascist, if you ask the playwright…there are some nice touches of humour too).
It does ask quite stimulatingly whether childhood happiness should ever come into it.
A child may not be particularly academic or clever and going to a school where academic achievement is highly prized might leave them vulnerable and left out – and at what price their own contentment and wellbeing?
Getting lots of qualifications and going to university is not for everyone and it shouldn’t be our sole marker of success, Oglesby rightly infers.
Most interestingly, she shows how the private/state sector plays out in her policy group – one Eton, one St Paul’s, three Oxbridge and the rest state-educated but all bright, enthusiastic and with slightly differing agendas, and the source of underlying and rarely articulated tension.
This also the forms the foundation for the play’s most hilarious scene – involving some flapjacks. There is good acting from a fine ensemble cast, as there is from the school mums.
The first half may seem a little stodgy with these different groups not connected and just waffling in their own universes.
Yet the second half pulls them all together, and shows how prejudices and belief systems lie at the way we look at our children and their schooling.
This provides for a faster and more dynamic second half with far more tension and drama and a defining conclusion.
For anyone vaguely involved in education, it’s unmissable and for the rest of us it throws up some interesting and fundamental questions as to what we think a ‘good education’ might actually look like.
ACV rating:*** ½ (out of five)
Pictures: Top – Alia has an interview at Oxford University – all pictures by Manuel Harlan
‘Future Conditional’ by Tamsin Oglesby, runs until October 3 – 7.30pm (2.30pm Wednesday & Saturday), The Old Vic, The Cut, SE18NB. Tickets from £10