Mark Davies Markham is the writer behind the Everyman’s 2008 theatrical tribute to Eric’s and the 80s musical Taboo. His new play Special Measures is bang up to date – even Maria Miller gets to be the butt of a joke – but those early influences could be said to loom, from the Teardrop Explodes that can be heard over the PA before curtain up, to the classic cheap-and-cheerful Grange Hill-style school set and rambunctious Young Ones-style anarchy at the heart of the play.
Set in a school on the receiving end of a damning OFSTED report and with a hapless Tory minister about to make a point-scoring visit to get his career back on track, things aren’t looking good for the frazzled, yet good-hearted staff of St Jude’s. MP Thomas Winters (Colin Hoult) is your Boris-esque, over-privileged Etonian, with a dutiful PA in tow (Jessica Guise) whom he sees as fair game for ‘it’s all a bit of fun’ style unpleasant sexual harrassment. Michael Starke is headmaster Ed Holmes, Eithne Browne his dependable right hand approaching retirement, while Paul Broughton is common-as-muck, heart-of-gold janitor Keith.
Completing the cast is Stephen Fletcher as Reverend James, Luke Search as newly qualified teacher with a dilemma Scott, and Angela Simms, who finally nigh-on steals the show after several supporting roles on stage at the Court in the last year, as Shirley Valentine-esque single mum Cher.
There’s less Thick of It smarts and more Brick Up the Mersey Tunnels playing to the Scouse proud gallery here – this is not so much satire than a some kind of cathartic comedy primal scream. (Davies Markham is a former teacher, and apparently his wife still is.) It’s not just a down-at-heel school; the staff all have a tale that ensures all and every political issue of the day is wearing them down as well, from bedroom tax and food banks to Alzheimer’s and Afghanistan. A lot hinges on the expectation that not only will the audience be rooting for them, they’ll be roaring the place down in recognition and approval.
The panto baddy MP doesn’t understand St Jude’s – the two-dimensional, unfeeling rotter never will. He doesn’t even know there’s a certain newspaper you don’t mention in Liverpool (cue pause for anticipated raucous cheers when it’s pointed out to him). Despite the ever-dependable and extremely talented ensemble, Special Measures may rouse the crowds, but ultimately offers little solution – short of kidnapping obnoxious Tories and tying them to chairs with Aldi bags over their heads, that is.
Then again, when you put it like that…