There’s a particular array of sense memories attached to the experience of an English secondary school. Perhaps this is why literature such as The History Boys and television series such as Byker Grove and The Inbetweeners have found such success and even adoration among the public; the familiar is scrutinised, the experience relived and dealt with, the humour used to build fond memories and the characters identified with in all of their adolescent awkwardness. A Level Playing Field by Jonathan Lewis, equals its peers within the ‘school play’ canon in provoking a memory and indeed an affiliation in the audience of the trials and tribulations lived through at school.
The play follows the raucous events of an exam isolation period; outside, London chaos ensues and their peers celebrate the end of their exams. But at the Jermyn Street Theatre eleven students are confined to the craftily and metaphorically redecorated music room, and their supervisor is absent.
In this dynamic and enthused window of time each student breaks out to reveal both their story and the crucial relationships that have developed over the past seven years. The antics of the students are hilarity tinged with, on occasion, bittersweet sadness, their conversation is sparring and witty, their energy is infectious, their youthful pragmatism and intelligence clear. The cast is a lively and massively talented group of actors who use their own recent experience of this age to bring a degree of reality to the performance which is often unachieved in representations of school plays.
AJ Lewis as the caustic Zachir is formidable, bringing an incongruously philosophical honesty to proceedings. Jojo Macari fantastically renders the neurotic Johnny Hook, whose Cambridge aspirations fall foul of a mis-read exam paper. Christian Hines playing JJ was excellent in his role as the frustrated rebel, seeing through the veneer of grade-based ‘success’ and seeking to find himself through written revolution. In fact, the entire cast is brilliantly characterised and emphatically brought to life. As the set degenerates into chaos and the class, with the help of one young teacher, pull together to save themselves from failure, the audience is reminded about the relative importance of that time at school and the magnitude of living the ‘now’.
Jonathan Lewis uses A Level Playing Field to clearly demonstrate his disillusion at the current schooling system, at the adverse and stunting effect of emphasis on exams and grades on young people, at the damage done to curious minds by institutionalised education. Yet within their dialogue he shows these teenagers as having an unformed yet endearing self awareness and a potent intelligence. School is a struggle, for the privileged and underprivileged alike. In unveiling the necessity for a better system Lewis declares not that the next generation is doomed but rather asks what could be possible if teenage minds were nurtured more positively. As a lens through which to examine society on a larger scale, this play acts to question the specific achievements by which we measure success and whether or not these bring real fulfilment.
Side-splitting and uplifting, positive and brimming with creative energy and cast commitment, this play leaves one celebrating the non-academic potential of the individual child within us all and leaves us high with hope without the need for Cal’s marijuana. It’s a definite must watch and one that I would heartily enjoy to see again.
Review by Annemarie Hiscott
A LEVEL PLAYING FIELD
by Jonathan Lewis
Directed by Chris Popert
In the music room of a top fee-paying London school, a group of 18-year-olds must
sit out an hour of “isolation” to cover a clash of exams and avoid the risk of cheating.
But their supervising teacher has failed to turn up. In dealing with the dilemmas of the situation, the pupils gradually reveal a darker side to the pressures they are under.
An 11-strong teenage cast portray their own generation in this roller-coaster tale of hope, identity and shattered dreams.
Jonathan Lewis’s play Our Boys opened to universally good reviews in 1991 and had a West End revival in 2012 starring Laurence Fox and Arthur Darvill. His one man show I Found My Horn was critically acclaimed when it opened in 2008. It toured the UK, had a run at the Hampstead Theatre in November 2009, and then came to the Trafalgar Studios in London’s West End in 2014.
Educational values are at the top of the political agenda these days, with scarcely a day passing without an outraged editorial in one of the papers. This darkly hilarious comedy blows the debate wide open in the authentic voice of those for whom it matters most – the kids.
Featuring: Joe Layton as Mr Preston, with Jack Bass, Izzy Caley, Eve Delaney, Christian Hines, AJ Lewis, JoJo Macari, India Opzoomer, Elsa Perryman Owens, Finlay Stroud, Joe Taylor, Lydia Williams
Monday to Saturday 7.30pm, Saturday matinees 3.30pm,
Extra matinee, Thursday 7th May 3.30pm
Until 9th May 2015
This production contains explicit language and smoking.
Saturday 18th April 2015