THE KNOWLEDGE
Bush Theatre, London W12
Opened 17 January, 2011
****

The title of John Donnelly’s play reverberates in so many ways. There is the London cabbie’s geographical test as taken by the father who deserted now-15-year-old Daniel; there is carnal knowledge, never far beneath the surface for Daniel and his unruly classmates in a school in Tilbury, Essex, nor for the teachers; and there is the simple awareness of what is going on inside or between characters (and what does it mean to “have sex with” someone? – that Clintonian question arises again here). It is both deliberate and significant that the educational sense is almost incidental, despite this being the first play in the Bush’s Schools season (it is to be joined in repertoire by Steve Waters’ Little Platoons).
    
For this is not a state-of-the-system play that grinds an ideological axe about which approaches should or should not be taken in contemporary education. It may sucker us at first into believing so, as it portrays newly qualified teacher Zoe coming up by turns against the quartet of untamable teens and her cynical staff colleagues. We may also anticipate a violent explosion from either the obvious candidate, nuisance-in-chief Mickey, or from Daniel himself (he writes poetry, but it’s always the quiet ones, isn’t it?). But whenever we think we have a handle on where Donnelly is going, he introduces another facet. The end of the second act sees a sexual/violent crisis dealt with by the three teachers (for Zoe has grown in both confidence and audacity) each blatantly manipulating the other two in ways which are neither legally nor morally defensible in absolute terms, and yet it is just as clear that each is motivated by a coherent and non-solipsistic set of principles. We can sympathise properly with no-one, yet nor can we dismiss any of them.
    
Director Charlotte Gwinner handles her cast of seven well; even the scene changes are efficiently drilled. The progression from comedy/drama of embarrassment in the opening scenes through to the ethical and psychological labyrinths at the end is executed nicely, in particular by Joanne Froggatt as Zoe, Kerron Darby as Daniel and Joe Cole as Mickey. And that’s not even mentioning the use of a blue prosthetic penis as a classroom pacifier. Whatever you think this play is, that’s what it’s not.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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