September, and as the pencil cases are replenished, the 11-plus tutored for, and teachers and pupils trudge back to the nation’s classrooms, a venerable institution welcomes a new face. Taking over from Kevin Spacey, Matthew Warchus begins his tenure as the Old Vic’s artistic director with an ambitious play about education.
The stage packed out like an oversubscribed grammar school, two dozen cast members enact Future Conditional: Tamsin Oglesby’s intellectually stimulating, if occasionally overzealous, drama about the problems in the British education system.
In one of four narrative strands, TV comic Rob Brydon plays Crane, a secondary school teacher struggling to control and to inspire his in-fighting class; in a sense, testing the limits of a teacher’s ability to mould wayward children. The lines do not always test Brydon’s virtuoso capabilities, but his assurance in the role is supreme.
Brydon’s star pupil Alia, a Pakistani immigrant, encounters racism in the playground and in an admissions interview with Oxford college dons. As if to signify the absence of children’s views in the great education debate, Alia is the only child in the play with a speaking part; in fact, the youngster characters are normally imaginary.
Alia (a resolute, convincing debutant Nikki Patel) also appears in a third strand, the brainstorming sessions of some ineffectual education policy-makers. This is the play’s worthiest component, naturally, and its least entertaining. It’s populated by well performed though non-developing stereotypes (an Old Etonian snob, a pugnacious leftie) who add little to the familiar argument over prejudice in educational selection.
Mirroring the policymakers’ debate is a combative and comical fourth segment. It concerns a handful of kiddie-scooter-carrying, anxious mums at the primary school gates; each from a different socioeconomic background. Their sometimes dastardly attempts to get their little ones to the ‘right’ secondary school — or to not give a damn about doing so — sees the ladies descend into hypocrisy, and shrill fighting.
Amid the rough and tumble, a classic question is thoroughly explored: whether self-interest should trump the importance of upholding social principles. There’s no clear answer, but for these thoughtful moments, Future Conditional gets top marks for effort, if not achievement.
Future Conditional runs until 3 October 2015 at The Young Vic Theatre, The Cut, SE1 8NB. Tickets £10-£65. Londonist saw this performance with a complimentary ticket.