Matt Woodhead

Trojan Horse

12/02/20

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

This is the second piece of work we’ve seen by LUNG, the verbatim theatre company that works to ‘shine a light on political, social and economic issues in modern Britain using people’s actual words to tell their stories.’ Last year, Who Cares? –  a heartbreaking play about Manchester’s young carers – succeeded in raising our awareness of the plight of 700,000 youngsters nationwide; tonight, Trojan Horse lifts the lid on a controversial news story we’d all but forgotten.

In 2013, an anonymous letter was sent to Birmingham city council, implying that there was a Muslim conspiracy to ‘Islamify’ state schools in Birmingham: a deliberate and concerted effort to force out non-Muslim staff and governors and implement a hard-line agenda. Clearly, such an allegation had to be investigated. Equally clearly, the investigation needed to be fair, objective and professional, as well as robust – and certainly free from political baggage.

Sadly, this was not the case. Park View’s OFSTED ranking went from Outstanding to Inadequate overnight. Teachers’ and head teachers’ careers were destroyed. The children – from one of the most deprived areas in Britain – emerged as collateral. An ideological war was being fought, and they were caught in the crossfire.

In this compelling drama by Helen Monks and Matt Woodhead, hundreds of hours of interviews are distilled into composite characters, representing teachers, governors, pupils, council workers and inspectors. While contemporary narratives focused on the accusers’ perspectives – with tabloids shrieking about compulsory prayers and segregation – Trojan Horse gives us a chance to hear voices from the other side, from those directly implicated and affected by the claims. And it’s a shocking story.

Some concerns, it seems, were justified. Even by his own words, Tahir Alam (Qasim Mahmood) seems to have misunderstood the remit and parameters of what a governor should do, taking credit for turning schools around and creating an aspirational culture. There’s no doubt that Park View was transformed – with an A*- C GCSE pass rate that leapt from 4% to 76% – but surely any accolades belong to the leadership team and staff; surely it’s their hard work and dedication that will have made the difference?

Other issues, however, were clearly fuelled by Islamophobia. In-class gender segregation, for example, was deemed to be a problem. But, as council worker Jess (Komal Amin) points out, no one was complaining about entirely separate schools attended by boys and girls in predominantly white catchment areas. It was claimed that the curriculum was being narrowed, with music and drama sidelined in favour of more academic subjects such as English and maths. The schools disputed this but, even if it were true, this was – ironically – in line with Michael Gove’s own plans: arts subjects have been systemically demoted in the state system over the last decade. To be clear, I truly believe both segregation and a lack of arts provision are wrong. But they’re not more wrong in Muslim schools than they are anywhere else.

Such is the power of this piece that, even here, I find myself focusing on the issues raised rather than reviewing the drama. But I suppose this points to its success. Yes, it’s well acted; yes, the direction is nimble and fluid. But the point, surely, is to let us hear from those who have been silenced, and to open our eyes to the agenda that shape the news we read.

Trojan Horse is currently on its second tour of the UK, which will culminate in a potentially cataclysmic performance in Westminster. I wonder if Gove will dare to attend?

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Edfest Bouquets 2019

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It’s that time again when we award (virtual) bouquets to the best shows we saw at this year’s EdFringe. From a plethora of performances over three weeks, here are our highlights. Congratulations to all concerned.

Theatre

Endless Second – Theo Toksvig-Stewart/Madeleine Gray/Camilla Gurtler/ Cut the Cord

Who Cares? – Jessica Temple/Lizzie Mounter/Luke Grant/ Matt Woodhead/ LUNG & The Lowry

Shine – Olivier Leclair/Tiia-Mari Mäkinen/Hippana Theatre & From Start to Finnish

Ripped – Alex Gwyther/Max Lindsay/Robin Rayner Productions

On The Other Hand, We’re Happy – Toyin Omari-Kinch/Charlotte Bate/Charlotte O’Leary/Daf James/Stef O’Driscoll/Paines Plough & Theatr Clwyd

Comedy

Jo Caulfield: Voodoo Doll – The Stand Comedy Club

Daliso Chaponda: Blah Blah Blacklist – CKP and InterTalent Group

Showstopper! the Improvised Musical – The Showstoppers/Something for the Weekend

Fishbowl – SIT Productions with Le Fils Du Grand Réseau

Beep Boop – Richard Saudek/Crowded Outlet

Special Mentions

Chris Dugdale – Down To One – Chris Dugdale Int Ents

Sexy Lamp – Katie Arnstein/Victoria Gagliano

 

Philip Caveney & Susan Singfield

Who Cares?

21/08/19

Summerhall (Main Hall), Edinburgh

Co-produced by LUNG and The Lowry, Who Cares? is a truly heartbreaking piece of verbatim theatre. Based on a year’s worth of interviews with young carers from Salford, writer/director Matt Woodhead has created a devastating account of children taking on responsibilities many adults would shy from, and of a system that callously ignores them.

A level student Jade (Jessica Temple) is old before her time. Her mum’s moved in with her new boyfriend, leaving Jade to look after her dad and brother. Jade’s dad is paralysed; he needs help to shower and use the toilet. Her older brother can’t assist: he has profound learning disabilities, and is deaf as well. Several times a day, Jade FaceTimes her brother from the school toilets to check everything’s okay. She’s struggling to focus on her studies.

Nicole (Lizzie Mounter) is in Year 9. She’s been caring for her mum since she had a stroke when Nicole was four. Nicole keeps acting out at school; she’s on a ‘behaviour plan.’ But no wonder she’s angry: she’s only a kid, struggling to navigate a punitive benefits system, filling in forms to help her mum apply for PIPS. No one at school knows what she’s going through.

Connor (Luke Grant) is a gentle soul. He’s a bit of a geek, devoted to his computer. But his mum has mental health problems, and his dad is physically disabled. Luke’s struggling to balance Year 11 with looking after them. And he’s scared to go home after school, because he never knows what he might find…

These three stories are not unusual. I used to teach in Manchester; I knew children just like these. There are an estimated 700,000 young carers in the UK; it’s about time their voices were heard. It’s hard to be a carer anyway, but at least adult carers get paid (albeit a pittance), at least adult carers aren’t questioned every time they try to pick up a prescription or attend an appointment. These are children, forced to inhabit a grown-up world. Why isn’t there support in place?

The performances are note perfect: these are real people with real lives. I like the high-octane rock music and the choreographed transitions between scenes; I like the onesies, the phones, the games console – reminders that these are normal teenagers, with the same needs as all their peers. The locker-room set (by Jen McGinley) is particularly effective, indicative at once of school, bureaucracy and shuttered-off feelings.

This is a must-see play, a well-deserving recipient of the 2019 SIT-UP award.

Find out more at http://www.whocarestour.org.uk

5 stars

Susan Singfield