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saints and sinners of the stage and screen

At the Heart of Everything
Upstairs at the Gatehouse
3rd August 2016

★★★★☆

Publicity photograph for At the Heart of Everything

Photography provided by the Camden Fringe

Hands up if you've ever prayed to the Ofsted gods for mercy? If you've worked in a school or if you know someone who has, I'm sure you can appreciate the sentiment. At the Heart of Everything is set at Runcible College where the teachers have just suffered the pain of a damning Ofsted report and every time the dreaded O-word is mentioned the staff cross themselves with a quick "Amen." But Ofsted might be the least of their worries. The college has been hit by some major scandals and the press are quite literally hanging off the lights to get a bit of it.

We join the bright, young Deputy Head of Faculty, Nigel Pearson (Gareth Cooper) on his first day in the job, following a stint at the Department for Education. Like all new recruits, he is bubbling with ideas and brimming with naïve optimism and plenty of jargon. However, as the realities of working in a failing college hit home, this soon fades away. Over the course of his first day we see him go from a smartly dressed professional to a nervous wreck who has somehow lost his trousers. While his descent into chaos may be somewhat quicker than average, I found this highly relatable. Having worked in a failing school myself, I couldn't help but nod along (though it took me about three months to crack, rather than a day, and I never lost my trousers you'll be pleased to hear).

The play's title comes from the college moto, as "Students are at the heart of everything we do." The irony, of course, is that they are not, and as priorities go they are pretty far down the list. With Ofsted, funding problems, and the Board of Governors to please, the staff have long forgotten the students and are now in the game for their own survival and advancement. While I believe that most educational professionals do like their students, I again found this all rather familiar. When I had meetings about "what Ofsted are looking for this term" and "how to do our data," I'm not sure students were at the heart of everything we did either. As you might gather, I gave up teaching, but Nigel has a bit more stamina. I don't want to give too much away, so I'll just say that I greatly enjoyed the ending.

While this play is a must see for anyone who has worked in education at any level, there is also something for those of you who haven't. Spanning topics such as nepotism, work jargon, affairs, and working relationships, you don't need to have worked in a college to appreciate it all. Although everything is highly exaggerated by director Andrew Loudon for comic effect (thank God), it still manages to feel very real. My main criticism is that there is perhaps a bit too much going on at times. It might have been the late night slot, but I did occasionally get a bit lost trying to follow all the subplots. Playwright Barry Fyfield is definitely one to watch in the future, however if I have any advice for him it would be to simplify things a bit more in places.

The acting is strong, with Christopher Knott and Jonathan Coote deserving a special mention for their portrayal of contrasting characters Faculty Director Frank McLintock and Principal John Sjoberge. Frank is probably somewhere on the autistic spectrum; incredibly knowledgeable and full of facts, yet not always aware of what people are thinking around him. Whilst John enjoys power, when things go wrong he just wants to run away and hide (under the table, for instance). Cooper also does a good job as Nigel, with some impressive physical acting and stage presence. Sometimes the cast could perhaps have shown a bit more depth though, particularly through facial expressions.

Overall, this is an exceedingly entertaining look at the absolute worst that could happen in a dysfunctional Further Education college. Anyone who has ever worked somewhere similar will thoroughly enjoy At The Heart of Everything, and there's something to offer their friends and partners too.

At the Heart of Everything opened on 1st August and runs until 5th August 2016 at Upstairs at the Gatehouse, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Highgate (Northern)



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