Review: Laughs aplenty in lengthy ‘teaching’ play

theatre “The Art of Teaching Nothing,” by Kirsty Budding, directed by Cate Clelland, assisted by Sarah Hull of Free Rain Theatre, At the Courtyard Studio. Reviewed by Helen Musa

KIRSTY Budding is best-known in Canberra as the director and writer who founded Budding Theatre, which has hitherto focused on short original plays.

Stokes and Kelly, not exactly young lovers

Stokes and Kelly, not exactly young lovers

The question has been around for some time as to just how easy it could be to make the transition into a full-length work like “The Art of Teaching Nothing,” and Budding has leapt to the challenge with gusto, creating a play that lasts for two hours.

Directors Cate Clelland and Sarah Hull have worked with a dauntingly large cast of 10, unusual for stage plays these days, to keep up the pace in this often very funny play, willingly going along with the suppositions of stupidity, incompetence, and humorous in the average school staff room. Their purposeful directing contributes in no small part to the continuous stream of laughs.

From the short play format, Budding has acquired the skill of writing quick-fire repartee, with a seemingly never-ending flow of jokes and quips related to the art of school-teaching, heaven to those in the know but troubling to people who’ve never been inside a school staff room. The changing language of departmental bureaucracy comes in for a special basting in this play.

Using the tried and true plot device of starting off with a ‘newcomer’, the play begins when Lucy (Glynis Stokes) arrives at a fictitious high school of low repute for her first day as a teacher. There she meets the corrupt, self-satisfied headmaster Julian (Rob De Fries), the head of student services Bronwyn (Emma Wood), a self-important cow from hell, the semi-retired maths teacher Mary (Liz Bradley) and a bizarre line-up of what one would call class clowns if they weren’t actually the teachers.

Stereotypes they may be, (Marti Ibrahim plays the obsequious English teacher who dobs in her colleagues and Elaine Noon plays the totally incompetent head of faculty as a modern day Mrs Malaprop) but Clelland and Hull allow them scope to heighten those stereotypes with gutsy performances.

In a series of improbable twists and turns including a ‘death on stage,’ we see the Head, aided by his deputy George (Arran McKenna) cooking the statistical books, drinking and fornicating on the job, totally ignoring the emotional needs of students and staff and covering up the universally bad teaching.

If it weren’t funny you’d want to cry.

But enough is enough, and all this hilarity about the education system cannot conceal the need for an emotional heart to the play, so it comes as a relief to detect a hint of romance between new teacher Lucy and the misanthropic teacher Paul (Brendan Kelly). But unfortunately Budding cannot resist the temptation to introduce a satirical twist that undermines the only two idealistic individuals in in the play by introducing  a previously offstage character in the last minutes of the action.

“I enjoyed some of that,” said one fairly satisfied audience member emerging from the play, summing up a show that told many jokes, took many twists and turns, made many depressing observations about our educational bureaucracy, and was simply too long.

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