Stage Review : To Sir, With Love at Birmingham’s Repertory Theatre, UK

The book To Sir, With Love was set not long after the end of WWII in London’s East End. This powerful, autobiographical story by novelist E R Brathwaite is about education, schooling, social divide, and narrow minded attitudes that were entrenched in people both in-school and on the outside. The main theme however, is the racial discrimination against black folks and against those neither black nor white children born to parents with ethnicity that they do not share.

Arguably the story made more famous by the film starring actor Sidney Poitier and singer, Lulu, because the film sucked in a 1960’s vibe which people could relate to. Largely because the comprehensive system had kicked in by the end of that decade, so, perhaps, allowed for a degree of creative license to tell the tale with more ‘swing’.

This production however, brings the story right back to its original post war placing, only this time it’s an inner-city school in Birmingham, West Midlands.  The period setting is slightly confused and I wonder where the misinterpretation comes to play in this respect. The class has, more or less, an equal number balance of the genders, who are getting up to naughty things, promiscuously and behaviorally.  Pupils are not ‘under the cosh’ as you might expect from the stricter environment that would still have leaned toward the Victorian in certain principles. In an effort to gloss over these discrepancies there is often strong indication that the school is progressive, and is headed by a democratically minded head teacher, Leon Florian (Andrew Pollard). More authentic to the time period however, is that the class has less of a multicultural mix of pupils than you would find in Birmingham’s comprehensive school classes of today. Writer is Ayub Khan Din and the play is co-directed by Gwenda Hughes and Tom Saunders.

I imagine, having not read the book, that actor and Youth Theatre Director, Philip Morris, plays the educated, skilled and socially refined gent, Ricardo (Rick) Brathwaite closely to it. Rick has experienced a lifetime of being an ethnic ‘outsider’, however, he cannot deal with rudeness and disrespect he sees from the youngsters, nor comprehend the lack of aspiration they have and that others have for them. Eventually, Rick decides a different approach rather than giving up the ghost like other teachers before him. I enjoyed Morris’s performance immensely.

Many references in the script worked very well with staging and props to propel you right back to ones’ own school life experience because not much changed in institutional settings over many, many years, and so, some reminders made me smile, while others made me shiver at the very thought of things!

A few familiar faces in the cast from last year’s The Rotters’ Club production from the Rep’s Youth theatre, including Charlie Mills in a key role again, and Alice McGowan. And so once again, as in ‘Rotters’, it’s a display of classroom antics from a group of children who are nearing the end of their school days.

It is always a challenge to choose the next Youth Theatre production and everything was in place to make the most of the story elements, but I feel this could have been much more gutsier and more hard hitting. And as commendable the performances of the young people are, I understand a cutting through to the nitty gritty would be difficult to accomplish with the involvement of a young cast.

Theatre critic, Debra Hall attended The Rep on Friday 28 April, 2017 to review the show

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