“And schools are back in the news this week!” So begins the radio news report which punctuates each scene in the new play by Peter Campling, “The Inspectors Call,” running currently at the Theatro Tecnis, London. The demise of BSF funding; the rise of academies; the English GCSE debacle and the changes in teachers’ pensions are all logged as scene setters for the life and times of George Smith, Headteacher at Ardley Green Community School.
George, feelingly played by Joe Cushley, finds that his beloved school, full of a rich range of heartwarming characters, is beginning to suffer from teacher action, government intervention and a lack of trust from the local authority. His personal life is a mess; he has diabetes which he does not control effectively and his professional demise is hastened by a well-intentioned, but naive Chair of Governors, fuelled in a cruel betrayal of loyalty by an ambitious, data-gathering deputy, called Winston. “Winnie,” played menacingly by Gbolahan Obisesan, is a triumph. Under-stated until the second act, the character produces the most chilling turnaround of events at the end of the play - no spoilers. His scene under the spotlight when he betrays his Head to the Chair of Governors was reminiscent of Eddie Carbone’s call to the immigration authorities in Miller’s “A View from the Bridge.” The distaste and disapproval of the audience for his action, was palpable and particularly resonant when I identified many of the current great and good in the largely educational audience.
Whilst playwright, Campling insists his characters are not from real life, he admits that there are elements of his experience as a Headteacher. George’s inability to encompass and protect the school during considerable governmental intervention; interruptions from staff, students, abusive parents, governors, officials and ultimately, of course the inspectors of the title, is heart-rending and ends in the supreme tragedy. A very personal mentoring between Amanda (Michele Monks) another senior leader and trainee teacher, Emily (Katie Turner) rings true as well from personal experience; there is always a place in schools for the seasoned, supportive professional.
The cast is large for a small production, so some actors are asked to double up, or even triple up roles. This actually adds to the enjoyment of the play, as one marvels for example, at Hilary Derrett, playing Betty the Chair of Governors and then with a tweak of the hair and dress, becomes Eve, the warm-hearted and efficient PA to George. Similarly, Blaise Alert Duggan and Sean Patterson play blinders in both their respective roles.
There was no weak link in the acting and the set, whilst basic, transformed to match the mood of each scene; the passing seasons in schools were well evoked with, for example, the arrival of a lit Christmas tree and a wrapped bottle, tagged from the school’s furniture supplier.
Gary Merry directs tightly and there were few surplus moments, although to a seasoned teaching audience, it could be that some roles are a little stereotypical; the difficult girl who has a hidden talent, or the ‘salt of the earth’ teacher who runs cookery clubs in her own time, but can’t produce the examination results. The thing is though, these cliches are true; all schools do have such characters. The audience too, were used powerfully, becoming at points, the staff of the school, being addressed by George or the Chief Inspector, the children in an assembly, or the inspectors themselves, gathered to make a judgement. By the time “difficult” Tina sings Handel’s “Gloria” at the end, it was clear that the audience had suspended disbelief and cared for this school.
Campling has effectively captured schooling and inspection during the Gove years and his message is clear; whilst thrusting Winston has a fair point about academic achievement not being just for the middle class, it is George who is given the endorsement of the audience with his impassioned plea that we remember education is so much more than the politicians’ view of “standards” and the cost of measuring everything that happens in schools is extraordinarily high on the real adults and real children who attend them.
Former Senior Leader & EducationConsultant/Writer