Review by Harry Bower
As a drama student, I loved my teachers. They were what made those sessions worth getting up for in the morning – the typically exhausted, down beaten, but endlessly optimistic creative forces who inspired much of who I am today. Teechers Leavers ’22 is an elaborate love letter to those who invest so much in their pursuit of education. With that as its trailer, there was no way I was going to miss this production. But would I grade this show ‘outstanding’, ‘good’, or just ‘satisfactory’? Well, I’m no OFSTED inspector but I’ll give a fair assessment a go.
A modernisation of a 1980s hit of the same name, Teechers Leavers ’22 is a comedy triple hander, with three outstanding cast members energetically adopting the personas of many characters. Though there is some evidence of times gone by (whose Gran owns a card shop anymorex? Do they even still exist?), generally the rewrite has been done well, with references to modern pop culture and events, the most notable of which are COVID-19, mobile phones, and party-gate. The premise is that we, the audience, are the audience of a BTECH drama play, performed by three students about to leave Whitewall Academy – an underfunded, run down state school which frankly could be any state school in England. The students are performing for their drama teacher, Miss Nixon, who has been in the role for a year. The play loosely retells the story of how they met her, how she inspired them, and the standard amusing relationships and scenarios which play out during a school year.
As far as authenticity goes, this show is bang on the nose. There are characterisations of students, teachers, and school staff, which are uncanny – and immediately relatable. Some of the funniest scenes are the ones highlighting the lunacy of the modern school system. Rooms named after Ghandi, timetables so complicated you need a degree to read them, the sanctity of spare chairs in a staff room, the caretaker who thinks they’re God – these are all recurring jokes which compliment a charming and well-informed script.
If there are shows which skirt around political issues and don’t contribute an opinion to the noise – this is not one of them. Throughout it leans into its writer’s origin story, as a drama teacher, and rightfully slams the government and the schooling system for its inadequate-verging-on-catastrophic treatment of the arts. In the programme, writer John Godber says that when he penned the play, he had no idea the themes would be so painfully relevant forty years later. And seriously – it’s depressing how correct that statement is.
The cast have star quality in abundance. Each playing a minimum of three characters, often many more, they have a huge challenge on their hands to make each identifiable and unique. That’s achieved by a remarkable range of accents, facial expressions, and physical theatre. This style of character acting does take a while to warm to, but once each character’s bonkers personalities emerge you start to enjoy their company. Michael Ayiotis primarily plays ‘Salty’, one of the three leavers. His Salty is mischievous, sensitive, and intelligent beyond their rough exterior. Ayiotis is an extremely talented character actor with some laugh out loud voices at his disposal and a special sense of comic timing, without which some of the characters would have the same impact.
Equally impressive is Terenia Barlow as Miss Nixon, the naïve but lovable drama teacher who is at first outraged by the mere existence of a private school, yet ends up pursuing a job there. Nixon wins over her students while struggling to win over her colleagues and represents everything a ‘normal’ person would feel entering the schooling system today. Frequently baffled, permanently frustrated, often completely helpless – but fundamentally hopeful. That’s Nixon in a nutshell, and Barlow plays her with a glint in her eye, representative of that hope. The standout performer for me is Ciara Morris, responsible for many of the caricature-esque characters. She oozes comic value and is able to take a seemingly standard line of dialogue and turn it into something hilarious, effortlessly. Her physical theatre is accomplished and the knowing glances to the audience when she’s doing something ridiculous had me grinning more than once.
Unfortunately, poor sound design (admittedly difficult for a touring production) meant that even in the fifth row of Greenwich Theatre’s auditorium I struggled to hear dialogue over the pulsating pop soundtrack. Also problematic is the chaotic nature of the direction. The programme notes suggest the intention is that the audience rely on their imagination to fill in the blanks, but I think this was leaned on too heavily. There were times, at the beginning of scenes, where I struggled to understand who was playing whom, in what location, and in what context. Set and props are really limited, and while the costuming is of a high quality it doesn’t help the audience infer character or scene changes. Most of the show is so fast paced that the quieter moments of dialogue which, although enjoyable and well written, in this production feel like a departure from the norm and a bit underwhelming.
Teechers Leavers ’22 is undeniably entertaining, depressingly poignant, and features three actors with true star quality. The school children in the audience will have loved it but will also be challenged by its themes – something all good theatre strives to achieve. The writing is sharp and serves as an effective critique of arts provision in schools and of current government policy, simultaneously acting as a love letter to all those teachers who refuse to compromise on creative education regardless. Unfortunately as teachers leave the profession in droves and arts funding is cut more every year, Teechers Leavers ’22 is only going to become more relevant. At its core, it is a witty comedy. In reality, it is a tragedy. It might be one of the only shows that I hope has no future past this run, because as the production illustrates so clearly: our young people deserve better.
Teechers Leavers ’22 is on tour around the UK, playing at Greenwich Theatre until 29 April: Tickets and information here: https://greenwichtheatre.org.uk/events/teechers-leavers-22/
After Greenwich the show visits Bury St Edmunds, Crawley, Wokingham, Birmingham, Mansfield, Chelmsford, Henley-on-Thames and Shrewsbury, finishing its tour in Coventry. Find out more about the touring production here: https://blackeyedtheatre.co.uk/shows-2/shows/teechers-live-tour-2023/
Photos by Savannah Photography