St John Costelloe
You read a lot about schools these days. Drugs in the classroom, bullying, teachers driven to the edge of a nervous breakdown. But what about drugs in the staff room? What if it’s the head doing the bullying, bringing teachers to the end of their tether?
It’s an interesting concept which Michael Ross deals with in his new play Teacher’s Playground, playing at the Landor Theatre before heading to the Edinburgh for a stint on the Fringe in August.
The play begins promisingly. Headmaster Buchanan, played by James McKendrick, receives a damning report from the school inspector. He responds to this by asking the inspector if he likes small boys. This turns out to be a stick with which he beats various staff members and McKendrick delivers the lines with an acidic pleasure that gets plenty of laughs.
It’s when the characters, be it the headmaster or the members of staff, are being manipulative and cruel that the play comes into its own. McKendrick is excellent as the leering sociopath who gets under everyone’s skin and maintains his upper hand through subtle threats. Julie Ford is also good, as Sue, the member of staff who suggests killing the head, and later gets her (slightly less drastic) revenge. Sukhraj Dhillon excels as Jennings, the leader of the staff rebellion who distributes confiscated pot around the teachers’ lounge.
The teachers’ plan is to persuade the head that he’s insane and get him carted off to the psychiatric ward. The ambiguity lies in the possibility that there is no plan – Buchanan is actually going mad (this isn’t resolved as well as it could be; a few tweaks in the script would help make things a lot clearer). At various stages he sees a giant bunny the others say isn’t there, a hat the others say is his wife, and a drag queen (played hilariously by Mike Williams) that the others say is his mother.
We’re supposed to be witnessing Buchanan’s gradual descent into madness, but the insanity comes on so quickly it’s more like a sudden drop. The key problem is, at just forty-fiv minutes, the play’s just too short. So a previously clever and confident man becomes a whimpering wreck in the space of about fifteen minutes, which stretches the audience’s credulity a little too far.
Teacher’s Playground has a lot of potential. The subject matter is a source of endless dark humour, and the plot contains plenty of laughs as well as some intrigue. Even the breaks between the scenes are entertaining, with artsy film footage and all-too-short snippets of music by Toyin Melody.
But, as it is, it feels like a work in progress. Fortunately there is plenty of time to make a few changes before the play makes its planned transfer to the Edinburgh Fringe.