Top 10 Plays Set In School
Education, education, education - it's an inescapable topic in theatre. Recent years have seen Future Conditional (kicking off Matthew Warchus's Old Vic tenure), Matilda the Musical, The Brink, Kin, Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, and, of course, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. To celebrate back to school week, here are 10 of the best plays set in school. Get studying!
1. The History Boys, Alan Bennett, National Theatre, 2004
Nicholas Hytner directed the original production, and his young cast (including Jamie Parker, James Cordon, Dominic Cooper, Russell Tovey, Samuel Barnett and Matt Smith) have since enjoyed stellar careers. But Bennett's drama is the real star. Set in a Sheffield grammar in the 1980s, it's blazingly articulate about the inspiration of great teaching, the limitations of exam culture, the oddities of history, and the importance of this formative period in our lives.
2. Another Country, Julian Mitchell, Greenwich Theatre, 1981
Mitchell's loose take on the radicalisation of Guy Burgess, member of the "Cambridge Spies", also featured bright young things - Rupert Everett, Kenneth Branagh, Daniel Day-Lewis and Colin Firth. Its 1930s public school setting is a neat microcosm of a hypocritical establishment culture, which judges, betrays and excludes two outsiders (one gay, one communist), while setting the template for their double lives.
3. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Jay Presson Allen, Wyndham's Theatre, 1966
More betrayal in this adaptation of Muriel Spark's peerless novella, with one of the titular Scottish teacher's "crème de la crème" of favoured pupils causing her downfall, and more politics: this time fascism. The passionate and hubristic figure of Jean Brodie is a giddy love letter to eccentric mentorship undercut by a cautionary tale, and has attracted numerous great actresses, including originator Vanessa Redgrave and, in Phyllida Lloyd's 1998 National production, a swaggeringly charismatic Fiona Shaw.
4. The Browning Version, Terence Rattigan, Phoenix Theatre, 1948
Rattigan's one-act play, originally paired with Harlequinade, is an exquisite mini-tragedy about a retiring classics master disregarded by his school, loathed by his pupils and cuckolded by his wife (David Hare supplied a more appropriate education-themed partner, South Downs, in 2011 to celebrate the playwright's centenary). Into a callous and fatalistic world, suffused with melancholy, comes an act of kindness that signals the possibility of hope - if not redemption.
5. The Children's Hour, Lillian Hellman, Maxine Elliot Theatre, 1934
Hellman's courageous and combative play, based on a real story about a pupil falsely accusing two female teachers of having a sexual relationship, takes aim at the intolerance masquerading as piety in contemporary society. If somewhat melodramatic, it's still a potent indictment of the witch-hunt mentality - the play was initially banned in Boston, Chicago and London, and its revival during the 1950s McCarthy era was a serious political statement.
6. Spring Awakening, Duncan Sheik/Steven Satar, Eugene O'Neill Theatre, 2006
The Tony-winning alt-rock musical is an inspired rejuvenation of Frank Wedekind's 1890 play - another work that faced frequent censorship, thanks to its tackling of adolescent sexuality, rape, abortion, homosexuality and child abuse. Like its fellows in the school genre, this is a piece driven by two competing forces: youthful revolt and a repressive establishment. Anya Reiss provided Headlong with a modern update of the drama in 2014 - equally alert to Wedekind's acute portrayal of the intense awakening of adolescence.
7. The Knowledge, John Donnelly, Bush Theatre, 2011
Former teacher Donnelly painted a hellish vision of his profession as a battleground. At a failing Essex comprehensive, a newly qualified teacher is dismantled by a combination of disruptive pupils, lecherous male colleagues, Ofsted box-ticking and an absent support system - this young, flawed individual becomes surrogate parent and social worker, and slides into a compromising relationship. It's a savage indictment of an overburdened system, which contaminates all who enter it.
8. Quartermaine's Terms, Simon Gray, Queen's Theatre, 1981
Recently revived with Rowan Atkinson, Gray's tragicomedy is a lacerating study of loneliness. The staff at this 1960s Cambridge school, which teaches English to foreigners, share failed ambitions, unrequited love and an extreme version of British emotional detachment. It's a sly microcosmic state-of-the-nation play, unpicking social customs and values - those inherited and those imparted. Teaching perpetuates a damaging cycle, as the school becomes a stultifying refuge from a changing world.
9. Teechers, John Godber, Edinburgh Festival, 1987
Set in at a dilapidated secondary, Godber's piece uses the play-within-a-play framing to great effect, and (originated by Hull Truck Theatre Company) is usually performed by just a trio of actors. Three pupils, inspired by their idealistic drama teacher, perform his story in assembly - embodying his argument for the rewards of investing time, energy and funding into the comprehensive system, and for supporting creative subjects. It's an argument that is, once again, all too pertinent.
10. Daisy Pulls It Off, Denise Deegan, Nuffield Theatre, 1983
A lighter entry, Deegan's parody of jolly-hockey sticks girls' boarding school tales (popularised by Angela Brazil, Elinor Brent-Dyer and Enid Blyton) is both ripping yarn and spot-on pastiche - from the plucky scholarship girl to the ubiquitous gymslips and mangled Latin. Its rosy vision of Empire and British superiority is increasingly dubious, but the core defence of honour and decency makes it a heart-warming homage - and the prospect of graduating from this world genuinely poignant.
Photo credit: Johan Persson