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The Theatreguide.London Review

The Knowledge
Bush Theatre     January-February 2011

Teaching in a sink school in a sink town is hell.

That may not actually be hot news to you, but John Donnelly's play delivers the unhappy message powerfully and with enough fresh nuances to make it hit home as dramatically as if it were a revelation.

With a vision that ranges from despairing through darkly comic to even something vaguely resembling hope, Donnelly makes it all real and illuminates some corners of the story we may not have been aware of before.

A young teacher is thrown in at the deep end with the total losers class in a losing school. The kids may have no basic skills and no futures, but they are street-sharp to the point of being feral, with even the most nearly-human among them forced to adopt shells of vicious and obscene wit in order to survive.

They can smell fear in a teacher and hone in with unrelenting accuracy on her weakest points.

In a Hollywood movie the teacher would slowly win them over and the beautiful actress would win an Oscar for seeming deep and sensitive.

But Donnelly's heroine cracks under the pressure, crosses some forbidden lines, and has to be rescued by her not-unsympathetic Head, who does what needs to be done, however harsh, to clean up the mess and enable the school to limp on.

It's that element that was fresh and revelatory (and totally believable) to me - the degree of horse trading, rule bending, bullying and outright blackmail that goes on in the staff room just to keep everything from collapsing entirely.

But even the parts of the story that are more familiar - the tiny victories and large defeats that occur in the classroom every day, the growing awareness that the kids are more damaged than evil but no less dangerous for that, even the sexual tangles the teachers get into among themselves while fully aware of how clichéd they are - become real and either sad or comic (or both) in the sensitive hands of the playwright, director Charlotte Gwinner and the cast.

Director Gwinner navigates the difficult medium of playing in the round skilfully, so that even scenes of characters sitting around a table don't leave anyone seeing nothing but backs. More importantly, she guides her actors to move beyond the surfaces that we might be too quick to pigeonhole to deeper and complex characterisations.

As the newcomer, Joanne Froggatt repeatedly surprises us by revealing new layers of hardness or softness in her character, while Andrew Woodall gradually lets us discover that the Head is not as burned out as he chooses to play and Christopher Simpson makes coherent sense of a teacher who is both a randy sexist and a dedicated professional.

Joe Cole, Kerron Darby, Holli Dempsey and Mandeep Dhillon nicely individualise the students without romanticising them.

If the best hope that John Donnelly can offer is that the system hasn't completely collapsed yet, The Knowledge makes that a message worth delivering in an evening that is always engrossing and involving.

The Knowledge is being performed in repertory with another play about the school system, Steve Waters' Little Platoons, featuring some of the same actors.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  The Knowledge - Bush Theatre 2011


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