Original review: Underdog Reviews
90s nostalgia cut through with political poignancy
Twenty years ago, in 1997, it was a time of Take That, Tamagotchis and British teachers celebrating in the staff room after Tony Blair and the Labour party were elected with the mantra ‘education, education, education’. Wardrobe Ensemble’s eponymous play unpacks the politics of this cultural moment with wit, warmth, and winning charm, exploring the optimism and the realism that cuts through the 90s nostalgia with political poignancy.
Set in a well-meaning but not-quite-comprehensive comprehensive secondary school in the immediate aftermath of the election, the Ensemble places the individual at the centre of political change. From the highly-strung but ever-hopeful holistic teacher hopelessly losing control of her classes to the stroppy student trying to petition her teachers for a place on the school trip. Wardrobe Ensemble is unmistakably a devising company, with each character so well developed in communication and movement that even when saying the same things or doing the same dance moves, the characterisation is unmistakable, and the creative doubling of each teacher as a student sharing the same name as their actor counterpart is clearly distinct.
As the plot balances the optimism and pessimism of a new political landscape, the play is a practiced blend of the lifelike and the stylised: the script is slick and its delivery quick, eliciting laugh-out-loud moments from its wit alone, but there’s also the absurdity of a walk-through the corridors – with two moveable doors creating endless possibilities – to a 90s music nostalgia-fest with everything from Natalie Imbruglia to ‘Let Me Entertain You’.
All this nostalgia needs an outsider to look in and see Britain at the time for what it really was, and this is where Tobias, a dry, droll, German teaching assistant steps in. Yet, as well as looking in to comment like a (German) Greek Chorus, he looks out to the auditorium as the house lights come up and addresses us directly, even singing a few lines of the Spice Girls while comparing them to Socrates. James Newton’s turn as Tobias is just one of seven strong, centred, and impressive performances from the Ensemble.
In Education, Education, Education, Wardrobe Ensemble capture the politics of yesteryear with the same anxieties of our present, managing to be riotously funny and quietly reflective; as head teacher Hugh says, in light of the election the teachers must remain politically impartial in all their classes, but, ‘we did win Eurovision, so talk about that as much as you wish’. The show ends blasting the election anthem ‘Things Can Only Get Better’, and there’s hope, as for the Tamagotchi and its reset button, that they can.