Back to school as revival puts John Godber's Teechers top of the class
PUBLISHED: 10:25 31 January 2018 | UPDATED: 10:30 31 January 2018
It may be 30 years old but the classroom themes of John Godber’s school comedy Teechers remain as relevant as ever. As it heads back to the region, Simon Parkin finds out more from to those behind Blackeyed Theatre’s new revival.
Three school leavers, Salty, Hobby and Gail, perform an account of their time at a struggling academy, recalling their time with Mr Nixon, the unsuspecting new drama teacher who ignites their passion for the stage with his idealism and belief that all children should be treated equally.
Teechers by John Godber was written in 1984, in the heyday of Grange Hill (on which he was once a scriptwriter), and first performed by the Hull Truck Theatre Company at the 1987 Edinburgh Festival.
The children of those who were born the year it was written could now easily be leaving school themselves, yet the themes of the play, part autobiography, part fact-based fiction, remain as relevant as ever.
So much so that Berkshire-based Blackeyed Theatre Company has revived their highly-acclaimed 2013 and 2015 productions of the timeless classroom comedy and are bringing it to Norwich and Bury St Edmunds.
“In the light of recent comments made by government ministers about the importance of arts in education, the messages contained in the play are more pertinent,” says producer and director Adrian McDougall.
Apart from one or two concessions to the modern day – they are Year 11 students, rather than the fifth form, and it is now a struggling academy, rather than a comprehensive — the play’s basic structure remains the same.
Everything is reduced to the bare essentials, with very little set and the three actors — Jake Addley (Salty), Rosalind Seal (Hobby) and Nicole Black (Gail) — playing 20 other parts.
There is a bang-up-to-date soundtrack too. Godber specified in his original the use of contemporary chart music to keep the play current.
What is the same are the unforgettable characters, political left-hooks and razor-sharp comedy, with something vital to say about education for the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’, says McDougall.
This is your third production of Teechers. Why did you want to direct it again?
I come from a family of teachers, so grew up hearing about education from the teacher’s perspective. They’d moan about poor behaviour and regale each other with staffroom gossip. So I suppose the play speaks to me for that reason; I believe in the play’s messages. Equally though, I love the audacity of Teechers, the idea that you create a world using little more that a few bits of furniture. For me it’s what theatre is all about and a brilliant opportunity for us as the artistic team and for the audience. Minimal set, minimal costume, simple lighting and just three actors, Teechers strips theatre right back, takes away the frills and takes us on a journey that’s extremely funny but at times rather touching.
How would you describe Teechers as a play?
It’s a comedy first and foremost, and the comedy comes in a large part from the brilliant characters John Godber has written and the relationships between them. Anyone who’s been to school will have met some or all of them! But like all great Godber plays, behind the comedy is an ascorbic social commentary, an attack on an education system that often marginalises the arts and ignores students’ potential.
How relevant are those messages today?
More relevant than ever, in my opinion. The last time we did Teechers in 2015 the then Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, was telling teenagers they should steer away from arts and humanities subjects if they wanted to access the widest range of jobs. Three years on and the government’s English Baccalaureate includes none of the arts in its core of subjects student must take at GCSE. These examples are indicative of what – in my opinion – is a fundamental lack of understanding about the role the arts play in a young person’s education, and there’s no doubt in my mind that the marginalisation of the arts is getting worse. But crucially, those who are affected most by that are students at non fee-paying schools. And that’s the other key message in the play, the fact that the quality of the education you get is essentially a postcode lottery.
How do you approach a play like Teechers that is so well-known?
Making a play like this work depends on a number of factors. Having brilliant actors who work well together is the most important, and in Jake, Nicole and Rosalind I know I have a fabulous, supportive cast. For each of them, creating a Salty, Gail and Hobby who audiences can relate to and believe in is vital. The characters we then create within ‘the play within a play’ have to be distinct and bold. For me, that’s about continuously looking at it through the eyes of these fifteen year-olds performing for their mates and teachers. As Godber points out, it’s in exercising their imaginations that Salty, Gail and Hobby find their love of drama. In creating our interpretations of Oggy, Basford, Parry and Prime (to name just a few), we’ve tried to be as imaginative and creative as possible.
What do you hope audiences will take from the performance?
I hope to give audiences a brilliant piece of entertainment, lots of laughs as well as one or two genuinely touching moments. Although written in 1984, our version is very much set in 2018, a time defined by social media, cheap celebrity and the uncertainty of Brexit. Young or old, I think audiences will recognise some if not all the characters in the play from their own school days. I have three brilliant young actors, a great script and two weeks to create our unique interpretation of the play.
Q&A - Jake Addley (who plays Salty)
What do you hope audiences will get from seeing Teechers?
I hope that audiences, especially young audiences, will have a fantastic evening out at the theatre. It’s a brilliant script with lots of fantastic comic moments. I hope all audiences will relate to the characters in this show, from the strictest teacher to the biggest bully. This is going to be a truly fantastic show so please come along and have as much fun as I have had being a part of it all.
How do you go about preparing for a multi-role show like Teechers?
I would prepare for multi-rolling in the same way I would prepare for any role. You focus on each individual character, as well as their physical movements and vocal styles. The great thing about this show is that all the characters involved in this production are people you can easily relate to. The biggest challenge is working on the transitions between characters and making it very clear for an audience. Ultimately, our job is to tell a story and make it as clear and as entertaining as possible to an audience.
Q&A - Nicole Black (who plays Gail)
What are you looking forward to most about Teechers?
I’m looking forward to getting back into the rehearsal room again and playing my favourite character Jackie Prime! I have amazing memories of working on Teechers in 2013 and am looking forward to working with Jake again. It will be interesting to see how the dynamics develop with Rosalind. I can’t wait to work with her!
You’ll be playing multiple (and very varied) roles. How do you approach that as an actor?
We are all playing so many different roles and remain on stage throughout the performance, so have to be very clear on character, pitch and physicality for each role. It’s such a fast pace production so clear differentiation between characters is a priority.
What do you hope audiences will take from seeing the show?
Teechers is a timeless piece of theatre. Everyone goes through the educational system, so the play appeals to all ages. It not only highlights the importance of education, but the right to an education and evokes individual memories for everyone in the audience.
• Teechers is at Norwich Playhouse on February 6-7, 7.30pm, 1pm Feb 7, £14 (£12 cons), 01603 598598, norwichplayhouse.co.uk
• It will also be at Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, from February 26-28, 7.30pm, 2pm Feb 28, £21.50-£8.50, 01284 769505, theatreroyal.org