Review: Future Conditional, Old Vic Theatre ‘Good Idea Burdened with Facts’


Matthew Warchus kicks off his tenure as Artistic Director of The Old Vic with Future Conditional, a play that seeks to examine the many, many issues with our education system. Worthy subject matter, but too often this play felt like an endurance test, burdened with the need to convey facts rather than focus on a story.

There are a myriad of characters here, inhabiting three separate story lines – a group of civil servants brought together to get to the root of the problems in education, desperate pushy mums at the school gate whose kids are on the cusp of moving to secondary school, and a ‘satisfactorily performing’ state school where just getting kids to focus on education, let alone grades, is a challenge.

But the central plot revolves around Alia (Nikki Patel) a quasi-Malala type schoolgirl who is proud and excited by a system which others believe to be riddled with problems. The Malala comparisons must have been deliberate because it is glaring to the point of distraction – Alia too comes from Pakistan, her family too suffered terrible loss, and she too makes reference to life at the hands of the Taliban.

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And she too is gunning for a place at Oxford. Only Alia, unlike Malala, is not a Nobel Prize Winner with, let’s face it, a guaranteed place. Instead her enthusiasm washes up against the hard wall of classism, elitism and even racism as she attempts to get into this bastion of excellence (go with me here) on merit alone.

If what I’m describing sounds interesting, well, hold on a second. This story takes a long, long term to get going.

By having these three worlds – which remain separate for a long, long time – writer Tamsin Oglesby is obviously trying to show the issue from many angles but there’s a risk that she is also trying to do too much, to address everything, every issue.

The scenes with the civil servants become extended periods of fact-sharing. Endless facts, one after the other – where Britain is in the global league tables, what the distortion is when comparing this to previous years, how many children have private tutors, whether free meals plays a part…

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And there must be over half a dozen or so Mums at the school gate in the other storyline. It’s a little overwhelming with clichés often used to make a point – the alcoholic Essex mum in her short skirts, the virulently principled left-winger who refuses to entertain the thought of sending her child to a private school, the desperate mum prepared to falsify her address to get her kid into her first choice, the one taking up church on Sundays just because the faith schools are better…

It’s all in this play. Every base covered. At times it’s numbing. Less would have been so much more. And when the play pulls it back, it works, which is the case with Rob Brydon’s scenes. He is often on the stage alone and when he is onstage, the play finds its heart and soul.

Rob is the teacher with the thankless task of teaching kids who just don’t want to be taught – apart from Alia. His classroom is suggested rather than present and Rob handles his monologues beautifully – I couldn’t help but be reminded of Joyce Grenfell’s George, Don’t Do That series as Rob valiantly battles to keep control of the classroom. There’s warmth and exasperation here in equal measure.

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Matthew Warchus, who directs, smartly pulls out the humour where he can – a big high-energy scene after the interval is a huge relief as I was beginning to wilt. Alia joins the civil servants to represent the views of school kids and finally it all kicks off with the adults behaving abysmally, more like children than the schoolkid in their midst.

This play is nicely timed – September being Back to School. And with any luck, what you’ll take away from this show are those brief moments of laugh-out loud comedy. But for me, the energy lapsed too often and the play was too saturated with facts to get emotionally swept up. It is entertaining, Future Conditional, and there is a good idea in here. I just wish more room would have been made for story rather than facts.

Old Vic Theatre, London to October 3, 2015

Image Credits:

  1. Rob Brydon (Crane) in Future Conditional. Photo credit Manuel Harlan
  2. Nikki Patel (Alia) in Future Conditional. Photo credit Manuel Harlan
  3. Cast image – Future Conditional. Photo credit Manuel Harlan
  4. Cast image – Future Conditional. Photo credit Manuel Harlan

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