The Old Vic has a new head in Matthew Warchus (“Matilda,” “God of Carnage”), and he’s already gone one better than his predecessor. Where Kevin Spacey started his tenure there shakily, with a dumpy Dutch comedy called “Cloaca,” Warchus kicks off with an absolute, out-of-the-park, see-me-after-class stinker. “Future Conditional,” Tamsin Oglesby’s satirical portrait of Britain’s broken education system, is so dreadful — haphazard, hectoring, stat-infested and full of offensive stereotypes — that it’s hard to fathom how anybody okayed the script in the first place.
Where to begin? Let’s start with the positives. Warchus clearly wants to restore the Old Vic’s political punch and Oglesby’s play is, at heart, an all-out attack on elitism and Britain’s ingrained, immovable class system. She plunges right into the paradox at the heart of education — reconciling equality with excellence — and takes privilege to task. Those not wealthy enough to afford private education must negotiate a tangled state system.
However, “Future Conditional” serves all this up as neat debate and hackneyed drama. We see a gossip of mothers at the school gates — stereotypes all, from yoga-honed mummies to loudmouthed Essex gals — as they jostle for position and play the system. Each exemplifies an issue: private tuition, discrimination, late applications — not people, but case studies.
In another strand, a circle-jerk of hapless civil servants — stereotypes all, from snobby Etonians to pugnacious left-wing Scots — brainstorm new models and education reforms. Some of their dialogue consists of shouting statistics at one another. They opt to bring in a pupil and end up debating actual government policy with a teenager, a situation with all the credibility of a homework-eating dog. There’s a full-scale food fight to boot, otherwise known as the old adults-more-childish-than-the-kids routine. Ho ho.
Finally, Oglesby gives us Aliah (Nikki Patel), a Pakistani immigrant who arrived with no English and is now applying to study literature at Oxford. She’s a sweet character, if far too on-the-nose. Standing in her way is a horribly bigoted old don, who, despite his intelligence, confuses India and Pakistan several times and so shouldn’t be taken seriously in the slightest.
The attempt to show education at every level — pupils, parents and politicians — is scattershot and sketchy. Oglesby knows she needs a teacher so, as if all this weren’t already haphazard enough, chucks in Crane (Rob Brydon), who aside from a little teacherly wit adds next to nothing. Only Brydon’s innate likability — he does gentle world-weariness like nobody else — stops you heckling, but the show sells him downriver by forcing him to act opposite invisible kids. At one point, he lectures an empty chair named Jordan about its disciplinary record. It’s like a drama school audition piece. Warchus has a Tony Award. What was he thinking?
It’s not even his worst decision. In order to have set changes in school uniform, he casts young. Fresh-faced twentysomethings play parents and politicians, which might stress that we were all kids once, but mostly makes this looks like a ludicrous school play. Only Lucy Briggs-Owen, as a blustery mother, comes out with her reputation enhanced.
There are entire scenes that serve no purpose whatsoever. Crane has a phone conversation about an unconventional punishment — only it’s not clear who he’s talking to, who he’s talking about, or what bearing it has on anything. Later, he types a fantasy email detailing all his frustrations to nobody in particular. “I’m sorry,” he writes, “that you’re lonely as an icicle in summer” — a simile so ungainly it belongs in a Dan Brown novel. (Does this particular icicle have an unusually low melting point? Has someone kept it in the freezer? When did frozen water develop the capacity for feelings?)
With Ralph Fiennes and Timothy Spall to come, Warchus’s term will surely improve, but with this dunderheaded fumble of a play, he’s flunked his opening entirely. Could — no, no, no — must do better.