A LEVEL PLAYING FIELD Jermyn St Theatre, SW1

FIFTY GRADES OF A?  ( EDUCATIONAL SADISM TODAY)
During the first half, parents of teenagers will cringingly hope that Jonathan Lewis’ play is fanciful: a comically exaggerated libel on a generation. Especially a generation of boys. Horrible, most of them they are: rackety, full of shouty toxic “banter” , contempt and their own dicks. In particular AJ Lewis as Zachir the Albanian Muslim is a courageously unsympathetic portrayal, as is Jack Bass as Aldous, the irritating prankster who has papered the entire room with identical gurning pictures of Nicholas Cage because it’s a room they will be “caged” in for Isolation between close-packed A level papers (a resort caused by timetable clashes, to prevent cheating).

The other boys, despite obvious nervy vulnerability in a couple of them, play along with the tone. Ugh: these are not the lively, affectionate, vulnerable children we know at home! The four girls are more civilized, contemptuous of the boys’ nonsense; but one is hunched in a corner with a misery not related to A levels, others selfie- and self-addicted, and a late arrival Twink (Elsa Perryman Owens) downright terrifying in her smudged aggression.

However, it is not really fanciful at all: Lewis workshopped the play with his son’s generation, and the eleven young cast are fresh out of school, non-professional. And my daughter, a co-ed close to their generation, reckoned the portrayal of group behaviour was bang on: to the point that I actually apologized to her in the interval for sending her to school and putting her through any such system of exams at all.

For that is the point of Lewis’ trilogy – which this opens – entitled “EDUCATION EDUCATION EDUCATION” . It is a howl of protest about the dehumanizing, grade-obsessed, teach-to-the-test world of exams. As the play continues, the kids themselves alternate between clear-sighted cynicism and desperate buying-in to the A-star, Oxbridge dream . Entertainingly, there are brief freezes when each speaks the groomed, disingenuous language of the UCAS personal-statement “…and thats why I have a passion to study xxxx”. It helps, too, that the exam they are in the middle of is Politics.

What emerges – notably through the more eventful second act – is that they are, effectively, abused by the system and their high-flying school. This eventfulness is driven by the other thing parents will hope to God is fanciful – the fact that the school has messed up its arrangements, and the eleven are left unsupervised in the defaced music-room with no teacher even to remove their phones to prevent cheating. Hence the Lord-of-the-Flies atmosphere. Though when the teacher does arrive – Joe Layton a study in angry haplessness – and certain secrets emerge, things do not get better or quieter. Though often they are pretty funny.
And, in the end, touching. For these 18 year olds are not monstrous, just bent out of shape by what Lewis calls “the maniacal devotion to testing and prescriptive teaching, in which exams are not just a diagnostic part of learning but the sine qua non of an education based on conformity and compliance”.

The next two plays will have a different, less riotous tone as the same issue is expanded; first through the eyes of parents, then of teachers. As Lewis says, he has not pat answer: “I am simply sharing my despair at a system which seems so often to turn children with wonderful imaginations and joyous self confidence into depressed teenagers with appallingly low self esteem and a terrible sense of failure and hopelessness.” This one is sometimes hard going – the first half could be trimmed – but with Lewis’ skilled writing and pacing resolves into something valuable, angry, and (God help us) darkly entertaining.
box office 020 7287 2875 to 9 May
rating three    3 Meece Rating

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