Review: Teaching British Values

Alex Sorgo 12 February 2018

Teaching British Values is set in a semi-dystopian version of the near future, where government surveillance in the UK has taken over schools. In an attempt to “locate” terrorists and promote British Values, the government has replaced their “Prevent” policy with that of “Respect”. Respect is targeted at locating potential “at-risk” students in school through secretly installed CCTV cameras and microphones. The plot follows one frazzled but feisty English teacher as she goes against the government in an attempt to protect a marginalised student.

From the get-go, it is obvious that both the plot and the characters of the play are quite typical. We have a white protagonist fighting against a cruel government to protect a person of colour. Ironically, the apparent antagonist (a white, Oxf*rd educated English teacher) is named Richard (aka Dick). The dialogue, too, often devolves into lengthy monologues and cringey one-liners.

In terms of lighting and stage set-up, the play was very average. The stage was divided in two, with a few sofas and tables depicting a staffroom on the left and a desk depicting a classroom on the right. Light was used minimally to add to the plot and was mostly used for functional emphasis on certain scenes. The choice of background music, however, was below average. While one scene used gothic music, another used classical and yet another used a more modern RnB tune. Overall, there was no consistency when it came to music, which added to the amateurish feel of the play.

While there were several areas of improvement, one aspect of the play that was comparatively solid was the acting. In particular, Erika Price, who played the lead character “Jane”, had an admirable sense of dialogue delivery and stage presence. Jenny Lazarus, who played Miss Parsons, an annoyingly condescending government liaison officer, and Rory Russell who played Richard both managed to successfully  frustrate the audience, thereby being great antagonists. However, given that the play did not come with a pre-packaged script but was written by Cambridge student, Jamie Webb, it can be celebrated as a brilliant first attempt at theatre.

The play is at its core a political commentary, criticising the Prevent policy and speculating about what might result if it is allowed to continue. However, for a play that seems to reject normative judgements, shown by the governments banning of certain books and targeting of certain people, there is little exploration of an alternative. Instead, the play lacks nuance and presents a clear “good” and “bad”. We are expected to reject the “Respect” policy from the get go and accept assumptions about the governments bad will. Parsons argument that the policy aims to protect at-risk children, or Richard’s concern for Jessica (Maya Achan), an “at-risk” student who comes from a broken family, are dismissed as claims that frightfully infringe on liberty.

The play presents two sides of the political argument on the use of surveillance to combat extremism, but only explores one. The other is blatantly portrayed as bad. That is what takes away from the nature of the play as a political commentary and reduces it to what another audience member described as “a young adult take on theatre”.