To Sir with Love King’s Theatre

In common with a lot of people of my generation I have seen the 1967 film starring Sidney Poitier but not read the 1959 book by E R Braithwaite from which both the film and this stage production are derived.

This stage version is set in 1948 amid the bombed out buildings and deprivation of London’s East End. Headmaster Florian (Matthew Kelly) is a progressive Head with liberal views. Under his leadership there is no corporal punishment and he believes in pupils’ views being heard through a Student Council whose members are elected by their peers – it took a while to catch on! However the behaviour of the senior class had driven their teacher to walk out, and into this crisis arrives Ricky Braithwaite, a black Cambridge graduate played by Ansu Kabia. Ricky’s search for work coincides with a wave of colonial immigration and he faces racial discrimination that leaves him unable to find a job in his field, so he opts to fill the teaching vacancy.

As a well-educated, cultured man, Ricky is confronted by ill-mannered, unruly and rude pupils who largely come from a background of poverty and deprivation. Ricky battles through Act One trying to instil discipline and manners into his pupils. The actors throughout the first act seemed edgy, the feeling was one of strained formality and the play stuttered along towards the interval. There were flashes of humour and Harriet Ballard as Monica captured the mouthy teenager brilliantly. Ricky has a huge row with the class over inappropriate behaviour and instils a new regime where pupils are expected to behave modestly and to respect each other.

In Act Two the play gathered some momentum, the cast seemed to relax and the whole feel of the play changed. The class are initially horrified at the thought of attending the funeral of the white mother of their mixed race classmate but are shamed by Ricky into attending. They become interested in learning, begin to care about each other, and at their leavers dance, present Ricky with a card signed ‘To Sir, with love’.

The play skims the surface as a social commentary touching on issues of post war immigration, deprivation, poor education and post war unemployment. Racial prejudice is explored through the barriers Ricky faces, the pupils’ treatment of their mixed race classmate and through the failed romance of Ricky and the white female teacher who backs off because she can’t deal with the social fall out from having a black boyfriend.

I’m not sure what Ayub Khan Din aimed to bring to this play. The writing doesn’t allow Ansu Kabia enough substance or personal charisma to justify the change of behaviour in the class. How did he win them round? Not with a trip to look at Victorian costumes. His character is not rounded enough to convince us. Kelly brings enthusiasm to his role as Headmaster and the pupils are convincing East Enders but as a whole the play is lacking in spark and verve.

Val Clark