Stage Left Theatre

Teechers is an adolescent revenge fantasy; the target is the educational system. You undoubtedly know the genre: Teenagers trapped in a school full of dull, indifferent teachers have become alienated and hostile. Recognizing that no one really gives a damn about them, they cling to each other for support. Then along comes a teacher who really understands, a teacher so hip and cute and unaffected that he barely seems to be a grown-up at all. He manages to inspire the kids and get them to care about learning. Even though he could make more money somewhere else, he chooses to remain an underpaid, underappreciated teacher, just so he can stay with the kids he admires and respects so much.

That is the gist of Teechers, and that is why the play is at times predictable and tiresome. So why would the Stage Left Theatre want to put it on? Because Teechers is also a challenging exercise in acting; and the three actors in the cast, who play a total of 21 roles, do such a fine job that they make Teechers seem almost fresh.

John Godber, the British playwright who wrote Teechers, created it for the Hull Truck Theatre Company, one of those countless small performing troupes that roam England’s backwaters in small vans, performing in union halls, schools, and other unadorned settings. The play is actually a play within a play. Salty, Gail, and Hobby, three students from Mr. Nixon’s drama class at Whitewall High School, are performing a play they wrote themselves about Mr. Nixon and the other denizens of their school.

In England there are three types of schools–the public school, which is actually an exclusive private school; the private school, which is a high-caliber public school; and the comprehensive school, reserved for those children written off as average or downright stupid. Whitewall is a comprehensive similar to the one Godber taught in for five years; and the play seems to be, in part, an opportunity for Godber to vent his spleen about conditions there that he found outrageous, pathetic, or funny.

Virtually all the teachers depicted in the students’ play are caricatures. Mrs. Parry, the headmistress, is a silly, flamboyant woman who is trying to coerce Mr. Nixon into taking a role in her annual production of The Mikado. Mr. Basford, the deputy headmaster, is a petty, priggish twit who sends his own children to an expensive public school ten miles away. Mrs. Jones sits in the teachers’ lounge, cigarette dangling from her lips, marking student papers and warning Nixon to stay out of the chairs “owned” by other teachers. “Even after seven weeks,” Nixon complains to the audience, “finding a regular seat in the staff room was a nightmare. I was told by Mr. Dean that a lot of new staff preferred to stand outside in the rain. Mr. Sawyer had been at Whitewall for two years and had not ever got a seat in the staff room.”

In all fairness, however, a lot of the students are caricatures, too. Oggy Moxon, for example, is a 16-year-old thug who intimidates the teachers. “If any teachers in this shitpot school with their degrees and bad breath lay a finger on me, God be my judge, I’ll have their hides,” says Gail doing her Oggy Moxon impersonation. Pete Saxon is another oversized student; he has a line tattooed across his neck next to the inscription, “Cut here.”

But the students are represented primarily by Salty, Gail, and Hobby, the three bright, capable, talented kids performing the play within the play. They can be crude and hostile too, of course. When Salty comes out to introduce the play, he can’t resist shocking the teachers by saying the word “knackers.”

But for the most part these three are students just waiting to have their potential tapped by someone like Mr. Nixon. And of course when Mr. Nixon gets a chance to go work at the nearby public school, well, how do such stories usually resolve such conflicts?

Under the direction of Dennis McCullough, these three actors are playful, inventive, and controlled. They have fun with this play without overacting–too much. By accentuating Mr. Nixon’s awkwardness, Phil Ridarelli manages to make the teacher genuinely likable. As the pert, bubbly Gail, Renee Cajandig is effervescent and mischievous. And Marguerite Hammersley, who plays Hobby, has a gift for mimicry. With just a simple scarf, she projects the theatrical spirit of Mrs. Parry, who flits about squawking and singing like a 200-pound land bird. Her Mrs. Jones is a vivid picture of the indolent bitterness that often consumes frustrated teachers. And as Mr. Basford, the deputy head, Hammersley actually looks puffed-up and dictatorial.

The three are a bit overzealous in their accents–much of the dialogue, which contains a great deal of working-class British slang to begin with, is lost in their pronunciation. But overzealousness is not a great fault, for ultimately it’s the actors’ enthusiasm and playfulness that make Teechers so well worth watching.