The History Boys,” this ain’t. John Donnelly whips the hoary sub-genre of the English School Drama into the present day with this crackingly paced, hilarious, shocking evocation of life at the bottom rung of the contempo U.K.’s educational and social ladder. Charlotte Gwinner’s production is rightly, unstintingly in-your-face: Signe Beckmann’s set of floor-to-ceiling blackboards places auds inches away from the cast’s riveting performances, anchored by remarkable turns from four tyro performers playing 15-year-old students.
Zoe (Joanne Froggatt, “Downton Abbey”) is a newly qualified, twentysomething teacher thrown into the deep end with her first assignment: citizenship class with her school’s most troubled students. Play’s coarse language, ethnically mixed cast and remedial classroom setting brings to mind season four of “The Wire,” but the original contribution here is Donnelly’s unstinting focus on sex. His expertly layered title refers not only to what Zoe vainly tries to impart to her students, and to cab drivers’ trademark mastery over the London street map, but also to youth slang for sexual activity. As Zoe grows increasingly frayed by her students’ misbehavior, her on-again-off-again relationship with fellow teacher Maz (Christopher Simpson, effectively louche) and the school’s inadequate resources, it feels sickeningly inevitable that she will succumb to the puppy-dog attentions of student Daniel (Kerron Darby).
But just when it feels like we’re entering the tabloidy territory of student-teacher romance, Donnelly twists the plot again, and the second act turns into a surprising series of power plays as Zoe fights to save her reputation. Having jaded, sodden principal Harry (brilliantly deadpan Andrew Woodall) reveal himself in the 11th hour to actually have standards feels too much like
a vain attempt to provide hope: Donnelly should have had the strength of his own cynical convictions.
Gwinner’s production rightly takes the cue from the tightly packed quality of Donnelly’s writing and masks nothing from the audience. Actors sit visible just offstage when not performing and move chairs and tables around themselves.
Froggatt is a convincing mix of brittle and fragile, and newcomer Darby has some spot-on moments, but the real revelations here are Mandeep Dhillon as Muslim good girl Sal; Joe Cole as aggressive, dead-eyed Mickey; and especially Holli Dempsey as heartbreakingly canny school slut Karris.
The first in the Bush’s two-part series of plays about the school system, “The Knowledge” sets the bar high for new writing for the U.K. stage in 2011. An extension beyond the brief, already-sold-out run, if not a transfer to a larger venue, seems advisable.