To Sir With Love

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on TO SIR WITH LOVE at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 31.10.13.
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4 stars ****

ONLY PEOPLE OVER sixty, now, will really remember the bomb sites that were such a powerful part of Britain’s urban landscape in the decade after the Second World War. Yet it’s the image of those stark, crumbling walls and dangerous rubble-heaps – captured in the backdrop to Mike Britton’s set – that sets the tone for this vivid stage version of E.R. Braithwaite’s famous1959 novel about his experiences as a young black schoolteacher in Stepney, in the late 1940’s.

Adapted by Ayub Khan Din from the novel itself, rather than the 1967 film, Mark Babych’s production for the Touring Consortium and the Royal & Derngate, Northampton, throws itself into Braithwaite’s story with huge theatrical and political energy, capturing both the young and highly educated Ricky Braithwaite’s shock at the fierce levels of racism he encounters everywhere, and – more profoundly – his struggle to recognise that his white pupils are not the English ladies and gentlemen of classic literature, but impoverished and sometimes desperate working-class kids in a bombed-out slum, short of aspiration, self-esteem, and a basic sense of entitlement.

The show features a delightful performance from Matthew Kelly as Florian, the pioneering liberal headmaster; and a strong, well-sustained one from Ansu Kabia as Ricky. In the end, the story seems both trapped in its own time – offering a parade of the kind of old-fashioned overt racism that anyone today can safely and smugly condemn – and a little overlong and over-emphatic, in its portrayal of a black hero who can never afford to be less than perfect, spreading light in a troubled place. For students of British social history, though, this is a facinating show; and its 15-strong cast delivers some terrific classroom set-pieces, along with bursts of jive-driven dance – around the shabby corridors and dinner-tables – that blaze with that unique postwar atmosphere of desperation, damage and hope.

ENDS

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