Monday, 23 July 2018

Review: Moving and funny play is a triumph of race relations

AN educated, well-meaning man travels to tame a bunch of savages and give them civilisation. It was a theme of

AN educated, well-meaning man travels to tame a bunch of savages and give them civilisation. It was a theme of the British Empire — except that this was a sophisticated black man in London’s East End.

To Sir With Love shows a neat line in reverse colonialism with Ricardo Braithwaite coming from Guyana to tackle a 1948 secondary modern class of near-illiterates.

The irony of that clash in this true story is always there but never mentioned in this production at the Oxford Playhouse. But while the message appears to be about racism in the late Forties, it’s really a celebration of how far we have come since then.

We listen to the racist attitudes and wince before realising that it was accepted and commonplace even 40 years ago, let alone 65. Most people have seen the Sixties film with Sydney Poitier and Lulu but, while this play follows the same storylines, it puts us right back to the original book in the primitive London of the late Forties.

Braithwaite must overcome prejudice against his skin colour and indifference to his ideas of teaching before finally triumphing. He is helped by Matthew Kelly’s head teacher character who wants to take the formality out of the classroom and replace it with respect and co-operation.

This is a moving play at times, and at others it’s funny. A lot of the time it’s infuriating as we are soaked in attitudes and language from an intolerant age. And the ending is perhaps too sugary for reality — although it appears that in real life Braithwaite and his pupils did learn to love each other.

It’s become the basic script for dozens of stories about tough inner-city schools with maverick teachers and as a lesson in social history it’s worth the visit alone.

But lively performances from Kelly, Ansu Kabia as Braithwaite and Mykola Allen and Harriet Ballard as the class leaders make sure it never flags and only occasionally preaches. The play is peppered with jive-dancing to keep the movement going during the more considered passages.

“Class by class, year by year,” says Matthew Kelly’s character at one point to show how slow the pace of change is — 65 years later he’s been proved right.

To Sir With Love is at the Oxford playhouse until tomorrow (Saturday). Box Office 01865 305305.

To Sir With Love

Oxford Playhouse

Tuesday, November 19

Mike Rowbottom

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