I can only imagine how stressful an Ofsted inspection must be for a school and it’s staff. But if being put into ‘special measures’ is anything like Mark Davies Markham’s latest production, I know I’d at least have a good laugh along the way.
Special Measures opened at the Royal Court last week and there hasn’t been a better reason to take yourself back to the classroom since Our Day Out.
Michael Starke (Brookside) is Ed the Head, headteacher of St Jude’s Primary in Netherton and inspiration to teachers, parents and caretakers alike. After a recent Ofsted inspection, the staff room think they have the all clear to get back to teaching (or trying to). But the timely visit of Thomas the Tory Minister for Education (Colin Hoult) throws their hopes of quietly getting on with it into disaray.
Whether up and coming or tried and trusted, the Royal Court is a venue befitting of any comedy, and a dynamic cast of larger-than-life Scousers has the audience in stitches.
A caretaker who interrupts scenes through a dodgy PA system, boasting about his ‘so-clean-you-could-eat-off’ toilets, and a spirited, newly-qualified young teacher offer bouts of comic cheer.
“I’ll take yer”, says Adam Search’s fresh-faced newbie, the pair squaring up in mock fisty-cuffs.
“You couldn’t take a bath lad” replies the sharp tongue of Paul Broughton (Brookside, The Bill, Mersey Beat).
Another of caretaker Broughton’s quips- which work perfectly as a kind of aside to the audience- comes after Thomas the Tory MP defends himself against accusations of unfair treatment.
“I came here with a hamper full of ‘praise-sandwiches'”, says the slimey politician.
“Well you must have eaten them all before you got here” retorts Broughton.
Throw in a belief-wavering school vicar who performs Taekwondo practised at a spiritual retreat in Toxteth and a bubbly single-mum crowd-favourite whose opening line in Ed the Head’s office was “go ‘ead giz a job”, and there is certainly enough to keep the crowd chuckling.
But comedy is not the sole purpose of Thomas the Tory MP’s visit and lying at the heart of the play are the very real issues of Scousers living through a coalition government.
Davies Markham’s exploration of social injustice and hardship in economic crisis through the window of a Netherton staff-room offers plenty for theatre-goers to think about, not least because undoubtedly one of the issues raised is likely to affect each member of the audience.
Unemployment, bedroom tax, benefit cuts, closure of schools through failure to meet unrealistic targets (“one of my pupils asked ‘what’s the learning objective Miss?’…I was only taking the register”, cries veteran teacher Eithne Brown), student loans, food-banks, the conflict in the Middle-East and cuts to essential local services all get a good airing in this production.
It’s a play that tries not to take itself too seriously and intersperses even very touching scenes with seemingly spontaneous bursts of dance. But even a playful Northern Soul soundtrack can’t deter us from the issues that are played out in our everyday lives.
A real ‘Us vs Them’ story which could only have been made and put on here in Liverpool, Special Measures is sure to be one of the successes of 2014. Grab your best Tory-bashing hat and take a seat before them lot in Westminster try and close it down.
Special Measures runs at the Royal Court Theatre till Saturday 3rd May. Tickets start from £12. Call 0870 787 1866 or book on-line at www.royalcourtliverpool.com