Currently at the Bush is "The Schools Season," two plays in rep and a series of discussions about the state of the educational system. Designer Signe Beckmann has the action in the round, with the audience surrounded by dusty blackboards. First up, John Donnelly's The Knowledge follows Zoe, a newly-qualified teacher (Joanne Froggatt) who's started work at a school in a grim town on the South coast. Thrown in at the deep end, she gets lumbered teaching citizenship to a class of kids who don't fit in anywhere else and would probably have been expelled if that wouldn't have resulted in a cut in the school's grant.
It's snappily written and director Charlotte Gwinner's production holds the audience's attention; the actors all stay onstage even when they're not in a scene and scenes tend to overlap, keeping the energy going. Story-wise though I didn't feel as if there was anything we hadn't seen before. Zoe's class includes the requisite aggressive kid with no future, Mickey (Joe Cole - not that one,) the quiet, poetry-writing boy, Daniel (Kerron Darby,) the pretty, flirtatious girl (Holli Dempsey) and the Asian girl who isn't given much of a character to work with (Mandeep Dhillon.) Zoe is terrible at first but gradually gets her students' respect; she has a fling with another teacher (Christopher Simpson) and things go a bit Notes On A Scandal as well. So there's a lot of tropes from other school-based stories, and in terms of this season it didn't feel as if it was saying anything particularly specific to the Coalition's educational plans, it could have been about pretty much any time in recent decades. That said, the cast is good (though Simpson tends towards the wooden) and there's some interesting moments; for me notably the treatment of homophobic language in bullying: Mickey consistently uses aggressively homophobic terms to attack Daniel (who isn't gay) but he treats an openly gay teacher's (Andrew Woodall) sexuality as more of a nudge-nudge wink-wink joke than as something he has a genuine dislike of. There's certainly moments of interest here, not least in a shockingly cold way the teachers treat one of the students near the end but I didn't feel there was much new either in term of story or insights. Two men were discussing what they thought of the play in the gents' during the interval and one said "it's good, for what it is," and I'd have to agree with that.
The Knowledge by John Donnelly is in repertory until the 19th of February at the Bush Theatre.