(Prologue: Chris Neville-Smith sits as his computer, thinking that he really can’t be arsed to write two articles about two plays he’s already seen. “What I really need” he thinks, “is a contrived theme to connect the two together.” Suddenly, he realises they’re both set in schools. Problem solved.)
Who would be a secondary school teacher? Here you are, trying to help teenagers learn the stuff they ought to know unless they want to spend the next forty years in the beef caracass factory, and what do they do? Have a riot. And who would be a secondary school pupil? It’s like Lord of the Flies, but with thick oversized schoolboys in charge. The only consolation is that it gives teachers and pupils alike the chance to write plays about what schools are like.
So two plays that are doing to rounds now are Teechers and Donna Disco. Both plays are smash hits, and having seen them before I can vouch they are smash hits for a reason. I also had high expectations for the companies producing them. And so, in perhaps the least surprising turn of events in the history of the blog, both productions were exactly as good as I was expecting. I won’t give a detailed appraisal of the plays as they’re already getting praise from pretty every Tom, Dick and Harry, but I’ll give a quick run-down.
Starting with Teechers, the play is one of Godber’s two megahits. It’s a play within a play, where all parts are acted by school leavers Gail, Salty and Hobby. It mostly follows the story of Mr. Nixon, who comes to Whitewall High School. It’s a sink school in special measures, and anyone who can avoid sending their children there does so. Idealistic Mr. Nixon comes with good intentions to bring out the best in kids with his drama teaching, and he does manage to earn their respect. Unfortunately, he’s up against a deputy head who care neither for drama nor the kids in sink schools, a caretaker who gleefully shuts drama out of school halls given any excuse, and an oversized pupil who thinks he’s Raoul Moat. When PE teacher Miss Prime spurns him, he loses heart, applies for the posh school nearby, and gets snapped up. So Mr. Nixon finds his future. But what about the kids leave behind. As Salty says to Mr. Nixon at the end (or Mr. Harrison as he’s really called): “The kids here need teachers like you.”
Having previously shown what they can do with a small mutli-character cast in Dracula in Dracula last year, I was excepted them to take to this play like a duck to water, and they did. Unlike Dracula, they didn’t have that many opportunities to do anything particularly original, because you can only really do Teechers justice if you stay faithful to the original production. But director Adrian McDougall still found a few opportunities to add a few Blackeyed touches, such as the dance routines between the scenes with all the flair and style of a school disco. The only major change was that Hobby was made into a boy (rather than the girl in the original), but that worked fine. With all three characters, Hobby in particular, playing a variety of characters in both sexes, it really no difference which sex Hobby is.
There was one thing I wasn’t sure about, which was the loss of some of the character-identifying props. In Godber’s version, all three characters play deputy head Mr. Basford and school nutter Oggy Moxon at some point, and they are identified by the joke shop glasses and the cap respectively. I was a bit nervous the audience would lose track of who was playing who without these (if they hadn’t seen the play before), but I asked a couple and that worked fine. So Blackeyed can safely bag a teacher’s gold star here.
Now let’s move on to Donna Disco. You think that Whitewall High School is bad? Donna’s is worse. At least at Whitewall it was just rowdiness, anarchy and teacher-baiting. At Donna’s school, the pupils have a very strict pecking order, with poor old Donna as the school reject. What’s more, two particularly bitchy girls consider any attempt to usurp their place at the top of the pile carries the death penalty. I must say, I’m not sure exactly who the intended audience are in the tagline “For anyone who thought being fourteen was easy.” I’m pretty sure the only people who think that are either not fourteen yet, or replaced their own memories with an absurdly romanticised version lifted from Enid Blyton. But you get the idea.
Although this production is down as Chicken Pox Fox rather than Live Theatre, it’s the same team of three who did the version produced by Live a few back. It’s still Lee Mattinson’s play, still Laura Lindlow directing and still Paula Penman performing. Solo performances tend to get a positive reception locally for the wrong reasons – often audiences are amazed that one person can act on stage for a whole hour, something that’s actually not that difficult. But it’s a good play with a sadly believable character brought to live by an excellent solo performance, and – crucially – a writer and director who recognise a solo piece had to be a play. A common weakness of stage monologues is that they’re little more than spoken word pieces, but the team between them pulled every trick in the book – through music, acting and cunningly-deployed props – to make this into a proper play.
If it’s got one shortcoming, it’s that the hour-long play maybe takes too long to get going. It’s only really in the second half-hour that things start to get interesting. But it is worth the wait once it gets going. Just one warning: it might looks like it’s building to an uplifting ending – with Donna’s trashy mother realising how precious her daughter is, and the downstairs transvestite neighbour providing Donna with an amazing story to spellbind the school – but that’s what I thought watching Atonement. That’s it for the Newcastle leg of the tour, but this, well as Teechers, are both well worth a visit if they’re coming your way.
Teechers and Donna Disco both tour until 28th March.