Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘To Sir With Love’, which is at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre until Saturday 26th October.
It has been decided that driving billboards round our major cities, urging unwelcome migrants to go back home, is a bad idea. This week’s play at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre is a very good example of the reason why.
E R Braithwaite was a British Guyanan World War Two Spitfire Pilot. By 1948, and despite his first class Cambridge degree in electronic engineering, he was unemployed and unable to get work in the UK for one simple reason. He was black.
Post-war Britain, however, was short of teachers. So, with no relevant experience, he ended up in an undisciplined, bomb-damaged Stepney school …where he met opposition far more fierce than Messerschmitt pilots.
In Ayub Khan Din’s new stage adaptation of Braithwaite’s largely autobiographical book, the school’s headmaster is ‘Mr Florian’; played by Matthew Kelly as an affable, arm-whirling visionary, akin to A S Neill of Summerhill School fame. He’s ensured the deprived delinquents have a voice on the school council and encourages them to write end of term reports on their teachers. So, Braithwaite, in life and on stage, has two enemies to crack; his own endemic attitude to education and the repulsive, rampant racism of others.
The Touring Consortium Theatre has turned to the much-respected RSC actor Ansu Kabia to play ‘Sir’. He’s correct and erect, proper and principled, dedicated and determined, and speaks the Queen’s English impeccably. Kabia is outstanding in this role, showing Braithwaite’s helpless vulnerability in his first cringe-worthy lesson, and his huge humanity when choosing not to fight bigots on their own terms. You yearn for him as he falls for a willowy English Rose. The scenes of tentative tenderness with Peta Cornish (as his fellow new teacher Gillian) are so touching you want them to defy everything…including her resistant, but utterly realistic, father. And you admire him greatly when he faces his epiphany, adjusts his teaching tactics and lowers his guard to get respect and results.
It’s a powerful performance, especially when you remember that Kabia is black and is standing on stage every night hearing overt racial abuse that is so in-your-face it un-nerved the audience…drawing gasps from we white folk and second generation ‘Windrush’ West Indians who knew just what he was going through.
For dramatic purposes, the solutions to both problems do seem a touch over-romantic. But it’s a highly emotive play; positive and uplifting on one hand – but deeply worrying on the other when you consider how much mending is still to be done. As Florian says, “bigotry has to be tackled year by year”. ‘To Sir With Love’ may have been written 50 years ago, but decades of progress are still required on both prejudicial fronts. So it’s a remarkably timely revival and Theresa May and Michael Gove would both do well to buy tickets.
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