3 Stars – A promising work-in-progress.
Director Mark Babych and adaptor Ayub Khan Din mix jazz and jiving with racism and East London accents to create a touching tale of acceptance and character growth in his lively adaptation of E. R. Braithwaite’s autobiographical book. The play is set in post war London, where anti-immigrant feeling is rife after the arrival of 500 West Indians on the SS Empire Windrush at Tilbury Docks in 1948, forcing black Cambridge graduate Ricky Braithwaite (Ansu Kabia) to resort to a teaching position at Greenslade School, home to a cast of boisterous students and eccentric staff.
The tale of the new, inexperienced teacher, who comes to educate the underprivileged students with troubled backgrounds, but actually teaches them ‘so much more’, has become a common trope in fiction. Antonio Banderas got his students off the streets with the power of ballroom dance in Take the Lead, Michelle Pfeiffer used Bob Dylan to get her delinquent teenagers to stop using drugs and start using metaphors in Dangerous Minds , and Hilary Swank manages to do the impossible and teach the ‘unteachables’ by giving them journals in Freedom Writers. ‘To Sir with Love’, however, alters this archetype by having the teacher suffer from racial prejudice rather than the students, humanising its protagonist and making Ricky a flawed character that learns just as much about judging others as the children he teaches. As an adult role, Ricky also has to face more direct racist slurs, not just from his students but also from his co-worker, the bigoted Weston, whose lines often elicited gasps from an audience used to our more politically correct society.
Considering the play is based on a book, the use of the stage is surprisingly one of its greatest strengths, with playground scenes and dancing introduced early on to portray the busy school setting, so there is less reliance on set pieces and props. It also adds fluidity to the scenes as characters arrange the set as they do so, so the audience remains engaged by what’s happening onstage. Ricky (Ansu Kabia) is controlled and measured, but with a simmering anger buried underneath the surface. A key standout in the ensemble of students is the bawdy, foul-mouthed Monica (Harriet Ballard), who dominates every scene she’s in, her loud peals of laughter defying the actress’s tiny stature. No less excellent were the maternal and paternal figures; Clinty (Nicola Reynolds), whose syrupy tones reminded me of Olivia Colman in Hot Fuzz, and the unconventional Headmaster Florian (Matthew Kelly), who dispenses his idealistic views so passionately that I wish I had had him as a teacher.
Unfortunately, the play loses steam in the second half, perhaps due to time constraints, as some storylines seem rushed, particularly the development of Denham (Mykola Allen), the initial antagonist who reigns over the classroom. The boxing match between Denham and Ricky’s ‘black knight’ Seales (Kerron Darby), the mixed-raced student struggling with identity issues, is anticlimactic considering it’s meant to be a huge turning point in Ricky and Denham’s relationship, ending the classroom power struggle that dictated the first half of the play. I also found that the focus on the romantic element of the play, the relationship between Ricky and his fellow teacher Gillian (Peta Cornish) had little payoff, especially as the actors lacked the chemistry to make me actively root for them. Whilst it was interesting to see how mixed raced relationships can be ruined by prejudice in society, I found that Ansu Kabia excelled more in his schoolroom and staff-room scenes.
But even if you prefer a more romantic play or perhaps something less heavy handed, go and see ‘To Sir with Love,’ for the great performances, clever direction and the internal cringe you’ll get when someone says ‘you people.’
For more information and tickets see the website here.