I think the second tweet above perfectly encapsulates the breadth of this lovely four-part radio drama, directed by John Dryden, which is funny and moving and which stuck with me long after its first broadcast in 2016.
School Drama takes place at a failing secondary school which is rebranding itself, pinning quite a lot of its hopes on entering a school theatre competition to pull it out of its previous misery. Former actor Geoff Cathcart (a lovely performance from Tom Hollander) is drafted in to help the students rehearse for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
The school, under the pressures that schools often find themselves under, does not make it easy for Geoff to do this – and that’s an understatement. The series begins with Geoff trying to get through to them on the phone (‘press one for…’) then later trying to get into the school grounds and then struggling to buy lunch (because the canteen uses pre-paid staff cards, which he doesn’t have). Another member of staff can’t make a cup of coffee as the kettle’s been removed for electrical testing (I’m laughing as I write this, it’s familiar territory to anyone who’s worked in a large organisation).
Rivalries with the drama department and a farcical audition for the theatre competition (fake blood being misread as real results in a panicked teacher intervening) compound the teachers’ frustration with Geoff’s unorthodox methods and his resistance to school procedures. On investigating his slightly vague background concerns emerge that he really might not be a suitable person to be teaching impressionable teenagers at all.
Although most of the teachers and the school system itself seem to be putting impediment after impediment in his way, the writer (Andy Mulligan – see his article below) clearly understands the school ecosystem (including funding struggles) and shows sympathy with the fact that they are trying to keep children safe. Of course the lack of funds and other restrictions don’t help creativity, and can make it harder to complete even the most basic of tasks.
The music and sound design are fantastic too, there’s a delightful and (to me) unexpected use of a school tannoy system near the start of episode four which gave me goosebumps.
It’s wonderful. But only available for another fortnight before it disappears presumably for another two years before rebroadcast. I hope they release it in some other format so it’s a bit more available.
School Drama, by Andy Mulligan (Ep 4 by William Shakespeare, adapted by Andy)
- Episode one
“Four-part drama series with Tom Hollander. Deer Park Academy, a re-branded failing school, is working to turn itself around and inspire its students. But inspiration can be dangerous and when has-been TV star, Geoff Cathcart, is brought in to stage a production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, he opens a Pandora’s box of controversy.”
- Episode two
- Episode three
- Episode four (performance of Romeo and Juliet)
Reviewer Gillian Reynolds said this about the fourth episode “Their production, as acted by real-life pupils and staff of Portsmouth Grammar School, became the final episode on Saturday. It seemed to me throughout to be a perceptive allegory of the way we are governed now. But this script, all the performances and John Dryden’s direction combined to make it something bigger and more unexpected, an affirmation of how powerfully Shakespeare’s verse captures character, motive and emotion, then, now and as far into the future as the English language lasts.”
Don’t miss (if you’re in the US)
If you’re in New York you can see Tom Hollander on stage as Henry Carr in Tom Stoppard’s Travesties until June 2018. He is utterly superb in the role. The play (the music and sound design are amazing as well) transferred from two runs in London and is directed by Patrick Marber.
The BBC Radio 4 team excelled themselves in providing a range of related articles with the rather amusing and recognisable “10 things every school drama has to have” and I think we can all get behind their “28 reasons to love Tom Hollander” – and will enjoy Tom’s response, embedded in the tweet below 🙂
There’s also this really great article by the writer Andy Mulligan (“Why Romeo and Juliet is the most “subversive” play ever written“) about his own experiences trying to put on the play in a school.
“A few years ago I was hired to direct a Shakespeare play in a school that was inching out of special measures. The project foundered, partly because of internal politics and resentments, but also because the joy of interrogating a provocative play with teenagers didn’t sit well with a school frightened of upsetting parents.
One day I needed a copy of the play, “Romeo and Juliet”. The English Department taught it, but to my amazement, nobody had a full text One day I needed a copy of the play, “Romeo and Juliet”. The English Department taught it, but to my amazement, nobody had a full text. Why not? Because the exam would test three particular scenes, so those were the ones photocopied, annotated and taught into the ground. Why waste time reading the rest of it?”