A new teacher in her NQT year thrown to the most challenging class in the school, stranded far from home, given no support from her mentor or the senior staff around her who are all too busy looking after their own problems. It is a story familiar to many of us acquainted with today’s education system.
John Donnelly’s new play The Knowledge has that ring of truth about it. Joanne Froggatt’s young teacher Zoe, who is desperate to teach, to make a difference, but is left babysitting, pushing paper and planning the staff Christmas party, is instantly recognisable and very real. Her plight – as stress, panic and self-doubt grow like piles of unattended marking – is undoubtedly reflective of the reality of teaching today. Not in all schools and not in all cases, but in enough. Signe Beckman’s design, which sees the auditorium walls transformed into one large blackboard, is nothing if not effective at conveying how teaching can become all encompassing.
On stage, we see disaffected kids. Joe Cole as the angry, combative Mickey, looking always out of the top of his eyes, safe in the knowledge that there is little Zoe can do to control him; Holly Dempsey’s Karris, who confuses love, affection and friendship with sex; Kerron Darby’s quiet, thoughtful Daniel, whose shattered home life haunts him. They all need help, but in a school struggling to escape special measures, there are some children they just don’t have time for.
Pushed too far at the end of the autumn term, Zoe makes a silly mistake that threatens everything she has worked for. It is a decision from Donnelly that moves the piece closer towards the plotting of TV dramas such as Waterloo Road, but adds a new layer of threat, politics and questioning of what is right, what is wrong and what may or may not lie in the grey middle ground in between.
It all sounds a bit depressing, and as an indictment of modern education it is, but there is dark humour hidden amid the corridors and classrooms. Andrew Woodall’s cynical, worn Senior Management Team member Harry has a deliciously dry turn of phrase, at one point translating the description of a troubled kid as “insecure” as “Guardian reader for w***er”.
Though Harry spends much of the piece sweeping issues under proverbial carpets, though Zoe’s mentor spends most of his time recounting disturbing tales and hitting on her, and though Zoe finds herself drawn into the corruption of the system, there is hope. As the show reaches its finale it becomes clear that though there may be a mire to wade through, all three teachers still want to make a difference. This, thankfully, is also remarkably familiar.