The Bush Theater sacrifices plausibility for topicality in Steve Waters’ new play about the controversial free schools movement, the U.K. parallel to the U.S.’s charter schools. The second in a two-part series about Britain’s secondary education system, Waters’ script charts the attempts of a group of West London parents to create a third way between poor-quality public education and the prohibitively expensive fee-paying route. Waters has clearly done his homework, but unlike John Donnelly’s well-calibrated “The Knowledge”, plotting and characterization consistently strain credulity both in Waters’ writing and in Nathan Curry’s over-egged production.
Play layers on so much personal intrigue that auds will struggle to focus on the important (though hardly earth-shattering) central questions it raises: Are free schools the answer to the inequities of the current system, and are parents capable of running a workable alternative? Yes, her partner Martin (Richard Henders) has just left her, but would that really provoke music teacher Rachel (Claire Price) to drop her 20-year-long commitment to the crappy local comprehensive (public) school and join the not-very-unified team of parents behind the local free school start-up?
Price’s empathetic, nuanced performance almost makes Rachel’s struggle credible, but the play is centrally undermined by the unlikeability of Andrew Woodall’s Nick, the ringleader of the free school plan: an unemployed, opinionated, white-wine-swilling old Oxfordian supported by his lawyer-wife (Susannah Harker), Nick comes off as what in local parlance they call a total wanker, when play needs him to be its charismatic central force. Woodall’s aggressive loucheness is symptomatic of the forced quality of several performance and production elements, including Christopher Simpson’s over-the-top working-class accent as fellow disgruntled parent Pav. Joanne Froggett gives the role her considerable comic best, but the device of a department of education official spouting bureaucrat-ese is another cliche.
Education is a fraught attempt to balance idealism and pragmatism, especially for parents, and the free schools movement exacerbates this tension. But we knew that already. Perhaps the most pragmatic choice for the Bush would have been to further develop this play before seeing it into production.