A question of respect. Discuss

A relationship in black and white: Sir, Ricardo Braithwaite. played by Ansu Kabia with fellow teacher Gillian, Peta Cornish

To Sir With Love

Wolverhampton Grand

****

RICARDO Braithwaite has never taught before. He's really an electronics engineer who couldn't get a job just after the war. So taking over the top year of impoverished East End hooligans in a run-down Stepney Secondary School in 1948 is a bit of a challenge.

Oh, and did I mention that on top of all the other difficulties he faces, he's also black?

E R Braithwaite's semi-autobiographical novel has been lovingly adapted by Ayub Khan Din into a satisfying stage play which might be a bit sentimental, might have a few something-in-the-eye moments and simplistic social attitudes, but its heart is in the right place.

Braithwaite, in the play, is played by the marvellous Ansu Kabia who produces a wonderfully correct English accent and a glare that could stop clocks. Like his original namesake, who is now 101 (or 93 according to some sources) and appeared on the opening night of the tour in Northampton to a standing ovation, the young Braithwaite ended up in teaching by accident.

Not only that, it was a completely alien form of teaching, revolutionary in 1948, lead by headmaster Florian played with a sort of shambling charm by Matthew Kelly who is so good in the role you almost wish the head had been more involved.

The head has done away with corporal punishment – this was in the days of canes and straps remember - and with student councils lets the children help run the school, or rather run amok as Mr Weston would no doubt have seen it.

Weston is old school, he thinks children should be seen, never heard, and should pass through education without touching the sides. He is a teacher and they are pupils, nothing more, to be  kept at arm's length, and, as a sort of history lesson for younger theatre goers who live in an age when the most innocent of remarks can bring accusations of racism, he shows us, perhaps to extreme, what remarks and insults black people had to endure just after the war and through the 50s.

Matthew Kelly as the head with his new teacher Braithwaite, played by Ansu Kabia

The staff room also has Clinty, the domestic science old hand, the rock for everyone, played with jolly good enthusiasm by Nicola Reynolds and another new member of staff, the slim and attractive Gillian, played by the . . . slim and attractive  Peta Cornish. She gives us a county set middle class, well-educated graduate of a finishing school who falls for the dashing, ex-Spitfire pilot teacher in a budding romance that founders on the rocks of the meet the parents weekend. Ricky is a good chap, but not the sort of chap for Gillian her father decides.

Then there are the kids led by the bolshy Denham, played byMykola Allen with that insolent, annoying but-not-quite-enough-for-justifiable-homicide arrogance that any parent of teenage children will recognise. He is the one who has to be brought round if anything is to work.

The female leader, the loudest of the bunch, is Monica, or bleedin' Monica as she was probably better known. She is a tearaway, one of ten children, whose father is no stranger to court appearances and pleas of mitigation. Swears like a docker and has an intelligence that has been wasted on years of failed teaching.

Harriet Ballard has a disillusioned, angry, directionless teenager off to a tee – along with  a voice that could crack an anvil.

Strongest of the girls though is poetry reaading Pamela, played by Heather Nicol, the first to see in Mr Braithwaite something she has not seen in other teachers. She is the first to try to please him in class and then the first to develop a schoolgirl crush on Sir.

Then there is Seales, the class novelty; the product of a white mother and a black father and such is the view of black people that when family tragedy strikes him none of the girls can go to see him because of the threat to their reputations by going in the house of a black man.

So for a black, untrained, non-teacher to transform the top class from a horde of barbarians to something passing as civilised young adults must have made a war spent in the air fighting Fokkers and Messerschmitts seem a bit of a breeze.

These were socially deprived, uneducated, children, failed by the system, living amid crime and poverty, and suffering the worse poverty of all, poverty of ambition.

Perhaps Edward Ricardo Braithwaite, the original, explains it better that anyone: “I connected with them purely out of my own wish to survive!

“It struck me one day that the children didn't have any respect for themselves and this was why they had no respect for other people and I seized upon that idea. I challenged them to respect themselves.”

Flashpoint between Mr Braithwaite and Denham, the leader of dissent, played by Mykola Allen

I don't know if I changed any lives or not but something did happen between them and me, which was quite gratifying. I didn't keep in touch with my former pupils. I had gone to the school to do a particular job and I felt that I'd completed my work with them.

 However, one of the strange things about life is how often circumstances repeat themselves. I'd be walking to work and people would come up to me and say “Hi ya, Sir!” There came a point when I was “Sir” to the parents as well as to their children.”

The play is about that transformation, not only of the children but of their teachers, not only Braithewaite but Weston, Clinty and, perhaps the only casualty, Gillian.

All right is schmaltzy, sugar-coated sentiment but if it leaves you with that warm glow of happiness inside as you head off to the car park, who cares. We need a heart warming tale every now and again, particularly one based on a true experience.

Mike Britton has designed a remarkably realistic set – a nostalgic treat, or nightmare of course, to anyone educated in a solid Victorian school that survived the war.  The stage could have been my old junior school with its painted brick walls, nicotine stained white above a municipal maroon base painted high enough to capture any child height grubby finger marks before they could reach the once pristine upper walls.

The similarity with my Lancashire youth ended though with the broken windows along with a stark skyline of chimneys which just added to the desolation of  the East End school. The classroom was represented by a wall of blackboards descending from the flies when needed and twelve desks and chairs, while the staffroom was a tea trolley, table and Weston's easy chair.

Everything was moved, changed, rearranged and taken on and off by the pupils, all twelve of them, with a jive to music of the time thrown in. It was a clever touch by director Mark Babych, making scene changes lively and adding to  a cracking pace which in turn made the dramatic pasues even more effective.

Apparently there were 200 people in the audience for this Touring Consortium Theatre Company production who had never been to the theatre before, thanks to the ambassadors and outreach programme the consortium has developed.

This was top quality theatre and if there is any justice that should be 200 people who will be back for more. 26-10-13

Roger Clarke

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