Review – To Sir, With Love

October 30, 2013 | By More

★★★★☆   High marks for humanity

King’s Theatre
Tues 29 October – Sat 2 November 2013
Review by Hugh Simpson

Providing everything that a high-profile touring theatrical production should, To Sir With Love has high production values, top-quality acting and several crowd-pleasing features.

Ansu Kabia and Mykola Allen. To Sir With Love. Photo © Nobby Clark

If it does not appear the most original piece of work, this is probably because of the influential nature of the original source; besides, it more than makes up for it in other ways.

E R Braithwaite’s autobiographical novel is probably best known from the 1967 movie starring Sidney Poitier, but Ayub Khan Din’s new adaptation, for The Touring Consortium Theatre Company and The Royal and Derngate Northampton, returns the story to its original 1948 setting.

Ricky Braithwaite, an ex-fighter pilot from British Guiana, finds that his raft of qualifications count for nothing in a country which judges him on the colour of his skin, and ends up teaching in Stepney as a last resort. He is shocked by the attitudes and behaviour of his pupils, but slowly they come to an understanding….

By returning the story to the immediate post-war era, this adaptation makes a great deal of the struggles of Britain to recover from war. This is reinforced by Mike Britton’s ingenious and versatile set, which is essentially a classroom surrounded by a bombsite.

Returning to the source material means that Ricky’s relationship with a white teacher, missing from the film, is reinstated, which highlights the story’s anti-racist message.  In fact, the play focuses as much on Ricky’s interactions with the other teachers as it does on his relationships with his pupils. The character of the headmaster Mr Florian (based on the radical educational theorist Alex Bloom), has a major onstage role, both as a sounding board for Ricky and when expounding his own child-centred viewpoint.

This has the effect of opening out the play so that it does not deal solely with race; instead it deals with anyone who is marginalised. In particular, it points out how so many young people are failed by an educational system that does not recognise them as individuals – a problem which remains as relevant today as it was in 1948. The whole story revolves around how important it is to tolerate others, and how difficult that is if you do not first feel valued yourself.

The whole thing is fluid and energetic

If that all sounds terribly worthy, the play is aided not only by Ayub Khan Din’s excellent sense of dramatic structure, but also by the ambiguity of the characters. Ricky, brilliantly played by Ansu Kabia, is committed and unselfish, but also prickly and more than a little snobbish.

To Sir With Love ensemble. Photo © Nobby Clark

To Sir With Love ensemble. Photo © Nobby Clark

The other characters are far from being cardboard cut-outs; even the bigoted Maths teacher Weston, played with pipe-chewing relish by Paul Kemp, is a more complicated individual than he first appears. Peta Cornish, as Ricky’s love interest Gillian, is suitably brittle and self-doubting, while Nicola Reynolds absolutely nails the flinty Clinty, a character instantly recognisably to anyone who has ever set foot inside a school.

Mark Barbych’s direction, allied to that versatile set, means that the whole thing is fluid and energetic; there is even quite a lot of dancing from Ricky’s pupils. When there are moments of drama, they are all the more effective, with particularly good use being made of silence on occasion.

There are things about this production which should not work, but which are overcome by energy, sincerity and dramatic knowhow. There are moments of clunky exposition and awkward philosophising, notably from Mr Florian, but Matthew Kelly’s sheer good humour and authenticity in the role mean that these are glossed over.

The supposed delinquent pupils are a little too well-scrubbed and well-heeled looking, and at times veer into Central Casting Cockney of the cor-blimey-guvnor school, but this is more than compensated for by their emotional honesty and sheer chutzpah, notably from Harriet Ballard as the foul-mouthed Monica.

To Sir, With Love is usually remembered as being the template for all those well-meaning but ludicrous Hollywood movies where an inspirational pedagogue transforms the ghetto through chess or ballroom dancing. This is more complex and more interesting. It is also tremendously well done and fizzes with a warm, uplifting humanity. As a result, it is impossible not to feel well disposed towards it.

Running time 2 hrs 40 mins
Run ends Saturday 2 November 2013, touring
Evenings 7.30 pm, Matinee Wed and Sat 2.30 pm
King’s Theatre, 2 Leven Street EH3 9LQ
Tickets from: www.edtheatres.com

Click on the images below to buy Ayub Khan Din’s script,
the original novel, and the 1967 movie on Amazon.

 

To Sir, With Love on Tour

29 Oct – 2 Nov Edinburgh
King’s Theatre
0131 529 6000 Book online
5 – 9 Nov 2013 Bradford
Alhambra Theatre
01274 432000 Book online
12 – 16 Nov Darlington
Civic Theatre
01325 486555 Book online
19 – 23 Nov Oxford
Playhouse Theatre
01865 305305 Book online
26 – 30 Nov Dartford
Orchard Theatre
01322 220000 Book online

ENDS

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