Review by Harry Bower
In the current climate with teachers joining other public sector workers in major strikes across the country and a perceived lack of appreciation for arts at a national political level, it’s not hard to see why a show about the life of a young drama teacher might go down well with audiences at VAULT festival this month.
For its first night, a sell-out, I was sat next to a friend of mine who is a teacher. Talking to her about her job is always a sobering affair for me and I am in awe of those who are able to juggle such a huge amount of pressure and workload often for a comparatively menial salary and relentless scrutiny from parents, colleagues, school leaders. And yes, the dreaded Ofsted visit, too. Bad Teacher covers all these aspects and more in this hour-long one woman show which is essentially an intimate letter of confession between teacher and audience.
Erin Holland stars as Evelyn O’Connor, a 26 year old drama teacher at a secondary school. The audience are involved in a dramatic retelling of ‘a day in the life’, beginning with her arrival on school grounds at 7am, accompanying her through her lessons, interactions with other teachers, and salary negotiations with her head teacher over lunch. The day culminates in the revelation that an Ofsted inspection is imminent and of course, the dreaded parents’ evening. If that sounds like a lot to fit in, that’s because it is – but Holland keeps the pace up throughout and really the hour skips by in a blur of bananas, light audience interaction and amusing insights into Evelyn’s life.
With multiple impressions and accents, the lead gets to stretch their acting chops in a challenging way, portraying multiple characters in a short space of time while not allowing those watching to lose track of the conversation or flow of the scene. She achieves this with huge success and manages to inspire organic and sustained laughter throughout with her dry delivery, demonstrating great comic timing.
Our protagonist experiences a lot during the space of one day as her personal and professional lives mix, but they still manage to say something meaningful at every step. One highlight in the piece is a remarkable custom-rap written for former Education Secretary Gavin Williamson which I won’t spoil, other than to say it is really rather excellent. This is a good place to mention that the piece is politically minded and goes in hard on the lack of funding, recognition and belief in the arts in Britain over the past twelve years. The confidence in the writing is such that this doesn’t feel out of place or forced. It also doesn’t feel inaccurate given the circumstances in 2023.
The show opens with the character promising us a ‘day’ full of ‘big pu**y energy’, and boy does it deliver. By the end I felt simultaneously empowered and impressed, both by the story which had been weaved in front of me and by the energy and enthusiasm of the performer. In many ways Bad Teacher is an open letter to its audience, reminding us of the pressures and perils which come with being a teacher in Britain today. It also offers a stark warning: that the mental health of our children is more important than ever and is in grave danger. This thread bubbles away during the show and comes to the fore towards the end in a scene which is shocking and confronting.
It is the show’s ending which left me feeling a little miffed. In an ideal world it would have been nice to see this character that I ended up caring so much about have some sort of redemption rather than just a lot of stuff going wrong. On the flip side this in itself is quite a good representation of reality.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when walking through The Glitch in Waterloo to the space downstairs for Bad Teacher. What I ended up with was a compassionate, very funny, charming and frankly important piece of theatre which transcends the stage. It speaks to the very heart of society; the beating heart that is our educators. It is the theatrical equivalent of someone slamming the fire alarm button while watching everyone sitting there doing nothing, with the flames creeping closer. I am delighted I got to experience it and would urge anyone available this week to do the same. You might just learn something.
Bad Teacher is educating students at The Glitch at VAULT Festival this week only, until Friday 17 Feb. Tickets available here: https://vaultfestival.com/events/bad-teacher/