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Special Measures/Royal Court

Mike Chapple finds much to like about Mark Davies Markham's school comedy

Written by . Published on April 10th 2014.

Special Measures/Royal Court

WHO would want to be a teacher during these days of Pointyhead Gove's crackdown on schooling standards? 

Mere mention of the geek-like Education Secretary or his minions in the Ofsted inspectorate is enough to transform your average sober “Sir” or “Miss” into an obscenity-spouting Tasmanian Devil.

Such is Special Measures' contemporary relevance that with a few tweaks it could could be adapted to play successfully in many other British cities

Congrats then to acclaimed Liverpool playwright Mark Davies Markham and the Court for teaming up to give us the nation's first glimpse of this irreverent, cynical comedy oozing in topicality. 

It's perfect subject matter for Davies, creator of the superb Eric's stage tribute. 

A former teacher, married to Sarah, also a teacher, the Bootle Grammar old boy says: "For her and her colleagues up and down the country, the workload is astonishing so when the Royal Court''s Kevin Fearon asked me to think about writing a state of the nation comedy, I thought: 'Ha! What better context than a school?' 

"So I agreed to do 'a nation in a state' play, exploring the themes of constant change in education." 

Special Measures 7Pictures by Dave Evans

Set at St Jude's (patron saint of lost causes - geddit!) primary school, Netherton, the devoted staff - already under siege from inspectors and a “could do better” exam report (hence the work's title) - Special Measures Liverpool Royal Court are subjected to a visit from toff MP and secret perv Thomas Winters. 

He has a secret agenda: to sack the grumbling old guard and bring in a new breed of super-subservient, shiny, happy people in front of the whiteboard. 

This sets the scene for two hours of outright class war, not unexpected given the deprived surroundings, the grim mood of the teachers and an outrageously out-of- touch Tory Tarquin who believes that Liverpool is a dump and that by repeatedly calling people “mate” he can ingratiate them to his cause. 

As a comedy, for the most part it works, especially in the first half when the cast change scenes, dancing to a soundtrack of old Tamla and Northern Soul, borrowing much from a previous Court proceeding, Dave Kirby's excellent Lost Soul.  

The second half, however, is a bit more heavy going with fewer laughs, which is not especially surprising given the subject matter.  

But this time, the action borders on cliche, polemic and even stereotype, using the over-familiar image of hard-done-by scousers up against the God of Mammon-worshipping Tory.

It was an irritant given what had gone on in the raucous first hour. 

Special Measures 1 

Nevertheless, such is Special Measures' contemporary relevance that with a few tweaks it could could be adapted to play successfully in many other (especially northern) British cities.

And a versatility to adapt the script to reflect the latest twists in British politics deserves a pat on the back for Davies and director Ken Alexander, with reference to the Maria Miller case raising much hilarity. 

Having a strong cast, mostly locally based once again, also helps in carrying such things off successfully.  

Stalwart Eithene Browne makes for a convincing Old School Ma'am and plaudits must also go to Jessica Guise, Adam Search, Angela Simms and Stephen Fletcher as local parish priest Rev James. 

When asked by Eithne's character, Grace, why he left the room as the MP introduces himself, a naughty Rev memorably bellows: "It was either that or chin the chinless twat." 

But the biggest laughs were reserved for the three so-far-unmentioned male members of the cast: former Brookside heavyweights Mickey Starke (who played Sinbad in the soap), Paul Broughton (the Close's Eddie Banks) and of course Tory Boy, Colin Hoult. 

Broughton is tailor-made as smart arse school janitor Keith, who's ever ready to prick Winters' balloon of political non-speak.  

Starke is good too as the beleaguered Head, Ed, who on this occasion, bears an uncanny resemblance to Kenny, the hapless station manager in the sublime comedy series, Frasier.

But ironically it's Hoult, who brings in the loudest cheers at the end having milked his right wing interpretation of panto villain  Abanazar for all its worth. 

"He's so good as a baddie," confided Iain Christie, the Court's marketing manager, "we're keeping watch to make sure someone doesn't jump up from the audience and punch his lights out." 

And who would bet against it being a real life Sir or Miss.? 


*Until Saturday May 3.

Special Measures 8

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Arthur AdamsApril 11th 2014.

Loved the new punchline to 'What do you call a Scouser in a suit?'

Arthur AdamsApril 28th 2014.

Billy Bragg on Twitter (@billybragg): Saw this great play at the Royal Court in Liverpool last week. Very political, very funny.

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