Philip Morris as Rick Braithwaite with the Young REP ensemble. Pictures: Graeme Braidwood
To Sir With Love
It’s something of an emotional irony that novelist and teacher E.R. Braithwaite, the writer of To Sir With Love, passed away in December 2016 at the great age of 104.
Just four months after his passing, his most memorable and famous story of racial inequality has been resurrected in this production by Birmingham Rep.
The 1967 film version starring Sidney Poitier may have been more memorable for its number one theme song by Lulu, rather than its dramatic content, but the film set the tone for many later stories of life in a tough school and a less than capable tutor winning over a class of tearaway students.
This new adaption by Ayub Khan-Din has taken the original story and places it now into a non descript borough of Birmingham. At times the transformation does lend an air of pantomime sacrificing the tension of the drama at the expense of audience laughs.
There’s the mention of Cofton Hackett as the destination for the elite to live in and references to the Broad Street School of poetry and the airing of some dubious Brummie accents.
However with these things aside, the production is well designed and executed and although the climate of racism today is more complex, To Sir With Love still carries an important message about social inclusion or the lack of it.
The huge success of the 1967 film overshadowed the fact that the story was autobiographical and based on Braithwaite’s own real experiences. Birmingham actor and youth theatre director Philip Morris plays the very respectable Ricardo Braithwaite, arriving at the school whilst waiting for news of his application for a job as an electronics engineer to come through. Typically his students are unruly, try his patience and reject his puritanical and well read view of the world.
Jessica Watts as Gillian Blanchard and Philip Morris as Rick Braithwaite
Like the entire play, his performance was clean and precise .His teaching colleagues seem oblivious to his colour except for Mr Weston played by Matt Crosby, whose jaded view of teaching, eventually becomes transformed by the work of Braithwaite’s relationship with his pupils.
Adding a solid central and very believable character was Andrew Pollard as the liberal thinking head teacher Mr Florian. Pollard has that rare ability to make a script sound like his own words and his commitment to making a difference to the student’s lives seemed plausible and real.
Polly Lister played Miss Clintridge, mostly for laughs it seems. Hunting down cigarettes in students’ desks and possessing a nonchalant happy go lucky view of life, she stopped just short of turning into Mrs Overall from Victoria Wood’s Acorn Antiques and kept many of the scenes flowing.
Jessica Watts as teacher Miss Blanchard added a middle class element to the school roster, but her growing romance, and its eventual end, with Braithwaite failed to ignite. The fact that this interracial love story, a critical element to the plot, as was Braithwaite’s general acceptance by a largely white class, was understated all felt quite sterile in the context of this originally ground breaking story.
What were great to see were the young rep actors holding their own with a stage of seasoned pros. The principle players of the young actors were Charlie Mills who made the transformation of pupil Denham from surly wise cracker to upright student his own. Elijah McDowell as Seales facing the loss of his mother and Alice McGowan as Pamela Dare suffering a teacher crush and finally Eden Peppercorn as the mouthy Monica Page all delivered credible performances.
An original criticism of the film version was that is sugar coated many of the serious race issues of the time and that could be said to still apply here in this version.
What still works well though is the co-direction by Gwenda Hughes and Tom Saunders which reinforces the universal message that family, friends, care and respect of each other and for each other is paramount to our differences.
The final acceptance of Braithwaite by his pupils after the end of term school dance was heart-warming and with his final realisation of his vocation to be a teacher completed a very solid production.
With the great work of the young rep clearly evident alongside the professionals and adding to their experience together with the enduring central story of To Sir With Love, it seems we all `got schooled’ on the night. To 06-05-17