‘Bonkers’ school life takes centre stage in Edinburgh

5th August 2016 at 01:00
Education provides a rich vein of inspiration for teachers and pupils taking shows to the Fringe

The headteacher of the primary where Vivienne Acheampong worked had a virulent hatred of the Comic Sans typeface. Such was her antipathy, in fact, that she would walk around the school, ripping down any displays that featured Comic Sans.

It was this particular woman who inspired Ms Acheampong to write a play set in a primary school, featuring an over-the-top head. The resulting show, Rainbow Class, is one of a large number of teaching- and school-related performances being staged at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this month.

Over the past few years, increasing numbers of plays at the festival have featured schools, teachers and pupils. Ms Acheampong – a London supply teacher – has set hers in a primary school in the capital.

“It’s all based on real life,” she says. “All the one-liners in the show are verbatim text.” For example, the play features a boy telling his class that, when he grows up, he wants to be a rainbow. “Obviously, it’s a bit extreme and a bit ridiculous. But the absurdity is the truth.”

There is a different sort of truth that she wants to highlight, too. “I wanted to get across the pressures of working in a primary school,” she says. “We’ve become so saturated with assessment and tests.

“I hope the audience will get a bit of a deeper insight into how amazing it can be to work in a school, but a little bit how bonkers it is as well.”

Hitting rock bottom

Ms Acheampong is not the only teacher to have drawn on classroom experience for the Edinburgh stage. Peter Campling, a former London headteacher, has written The Inspectors Call, an Ofsted satire.

His play also includes some real-life incidents. “That moment when you hit rock bottom and think it can’t get any worse, then you get a parcel from the secretary of state and it’s got a King James Bible in it,” Mr Campling says. “Schools are great places for farce. Lots of ridiculous and extraordinary things happen there every day.”

The ridiculousness of the everyday also inspired Rick Wood, a drama teacher from Nottingham who is performing an extended beat poem, Trust Me, I’m a Drama Teacher.

His show features a song about trying fruitlessly to manage a misbehaving bottom set at precisely the moment when an Ofsted inspector puts his head around the door. Another song is a response to the people who, through the years, have said to Mr Wood, “Oh, drama – that’s just pretending to be a tree” or, “Oh, teaching – you work part-time.”

Peter Bird, head of English at Lambrook, a preparatory school in Berkshire, also deals with common educational misconceptions in Puddles, the Posh School Musical, which he has written specifically for the festival.

“It was a slight dig at some colleagues in the state sector who had this view that the independent sector was a completely different world,” he says. “That prep schools are very posh places, with people living out of touch with reality. So we’re taking that and poking a little bit of fun at it.”

The play’s Puddlescombe Prep is a place of insularity, teachers in gowns and jolly japes. For added authenticity, it is being performed by Lambrook pupils. “There are a few super-posh schools around us,” says Mr Bird. “Our pupils all think I’m taking the mickey out of those. Which I wasn’t. In case I ever want a job there.”

‘Once-in-a-lifetime experience’

A number of schools are bringing pupils to perform at the festival. Sixth-formers from King Edward VI School, in Stratford-upon-Avon – the school attended by Shakespeare – are performing That Face, a play about children who parent their parents.

“But it’s not just about the production,” says Louisa Nightingale, the school’s head of drama. “They’ve been doing cake sales every week to raise money for it. They did a drama showcase. And it’s getting them to work in a professional context. It’s just really giving them a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Mr Bird similarly believes that staging an Edinburgh show will be a valuable experience for pupils: accustomed to performing to parents at school, they will now have to ensure that their performances satisfy paying customers.

“But having half a dozen audience members walk out during the performance isn’t going to damage them,” he says. “It’s a good lesson.”


School-related shows at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this year

Bash – Neil LaBute’s story of darkness, terror and the Mormon church. Performed by pupils from Sevenoaks School in Kent.

Burying Your Brother in the Pavement – Tom’s brother, Luke, is dead. Tom is not particularly upset. Performed by pupils from Eagle House School in Berkshire.

Care Takers – A pupil is bullied for being gay; a teacher wants to help, but is facing her own bully.

The C/D Borderline – A tale of two mates stumbling through school.

Everyman – Everyman lives life to the full, until Death forces her to reassess her choices. Performed by pupils from North London Collegiate School.

Fresher – Ten students face the consequences of freshers’ week. Performed by pupils from Uppingham School in Rutland.

Front Line – A Croatian refugee has made a new life for herself as a high school counsellor.

Great Expectations – Pip, Estella and Miss Havisham. Performed by pupils from Shrewsbury School in Shropshire.

Hammerton Community High, Class of ’75 – The last assembly of the year at a West Yorkshire secondary in 1975.

The Inspectors Call – A head faces poor results, a budget deficit and the arrival of Ofsted.

Mark Cooper-Jones: Geographically Speaking – A former geography teacher turns his subject into stand-up.

Orlando Baxter: Suspensions, Detentions and Summer Vacations – A comedian takes inspiration from his time teaching in the US.

Paperclips and Ammunition – Teachers, headteachers and the pitfalls of over-administration.

Please Excuse my Dear Aunt Sally – Follow an illicit affair between a boy and his teacher, from the point of view of his mobile phone.

Puddles, the Posh School Musical – Is something sinister afoot at Puddlescombe Prep, the poshest school in Britain?

l Rainbow Class – A one-woman show offering a comic insight into life at an inner-city primary school.

l The Rooster Rebellion – The story of a homeless former history teacher, and the pupil who runs away from home to look after him.

Tales From The Tent – Hear the Sticklewarts’ stories of heartbreak and hope. Performed by pupils from Dolphin School in Berkshire.

Tell Mary I Love Her – The Second World War story of two best friends in the Army. Performed by pupils from St Edward’s School in Oxford.

l That Face – A play about children who parent their parents. Performed by students from King Edward VI School in Stratford-upon-Avon.

l The Third Wave – A true story of a high school experiment in fascism that goes horribly wrong.

l Thomas Green: That’ll Teach You – Life has many lessons; sometimes the teacher is the student. Stand-up from a former teacher.

Trust Me, I’m a Drama Teacher – A cynical, downtrodden drama teacher becomes involved in the life of one of his students.

Year Ten – A year in the life of a 15-year-old boy.

To book tickets for these shows, visit www.edfringe.com

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