A new play on what happens when Ofsted targets a school paints a bleak picture of the human and educational costs.
There is a moment during the first half of this new play by ex-teacher and writer Peter Campling when this politically charged drama set in a school grabs hold and never lets go. George Smith, played by a Falstaff-like Joe Cushley, is headmaster of an inner-London comprehensive who spends each frantic school day waiting for the Ofsted inspectors to call. In the interim, he has to deal with everything from interfering director of children’s services Bryony (Penelope Dimond), irate parents, squeezed budgets and a disintegrating home life.
Smith’s motto is “stay positive” but it rings increasingly hollow as the pressures and crises build up under the new regime of He Who Must Not Be Named — clearly a reference to Michael Gove and his academy and free schools “revolution.” In a moving scene, Smith has to be the one who wields the axe against long-serving teacher Fiona, played by a hugely sympathetic Amanda Maud. Inevitably, union rep Phil — the wonderfully versatile Anthony Best — calls a strike.
The most chilling moment in the piece is between Smith and the ambitious, data-obsessed deputy head Winston — the brilliant Gbolahan Obisesan — who has no time for the liberal, inclusive values of his fellow senior teacher. He dismisses them as an excuse for letting the mostly working-class and immigrant pupils fail to excel and consigning them to a dead-end future. The two are polar opposites of teaching philosophy — Govian versus progressive — and they are also both in love with the same young and beautiful teacher, Lara (Blaise Alert Duggan). When a tryst is discovered at the Christmas party, Winston’s Brutus-like ambitions to replace Smith are laid bare.
Inevitably, the dreaded call comes in the second half. Maud assumes the role of the officious, icy Ofsted inspector as Smith and his team scramble to present the best possible face of the school. We want them to succeed but in this inquisition-like trial by fire, the stakes appear stacked against Smith and his co-operative values, upheld by deputy heads Jim and Amanda (the equally excellent Sean Patterson and Michèle Monks). As matters progress, the human cost of relentless competition, testing and inspection in the name of ever-rising standards becomes ever more evident.
Under the muscular direction of Gary Merry for No-Notice Productions, The Inspectors Call is both comic and a moving tragedy which continuoulsy offers up pithy insights.
As Smith replies sagely to the demand by Bryony that the school achieve “outstanding” status: “None of them would be if they all were.” Quite.
Joe Gill – The Morning Star – 9th May 2015