“We come here to learn things we don’t know”
Right now, there’s more women onstage at Hampstead’s downstairs theatre than there are in the current and next main house shows (The Moderate Soprano and Hapgood, both written and directed by men too) combined – a sorry record indeed for any establishment. Which isn’t the note on which I intended to start this review of A Further Education (which is directed by a woman at least) but it’s something I wanted to say which I think needs to be recognised more widely.
But to the matter at hand. A Further Education is Will Mortimer’s debut professional play and is something of a gentle comedy, its rather warm ideal ideal for these darkening nights. It’s the start of a new year at university and Josh and Lydia’s English Lit tutorial is blown open by the arrival of mature student Charlotte Swift. Seemingly an academic genius wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, her insights even knock the socks off lecturer Chris yet try as they all might to get her to open up, Charlotte’s personal circumstances remain a closed book.
In the bustling to-and-fro of Caitlin McLeod’s production, Stella Gonet is inspired casting as Charlotte, combining inscrutable gravitas with a youthful sprightliness that comes from far more than just her skinny jeans and Converse. Charlotte’s love of learning is infectious, finding kinship in Issy van Randwyck’s newly-installed Vice Chancellor and her curious enthusiasm but also in her younger undergrad colleagues, Josh and Lydia are perhaps keener on downing shots of Chartreuse and snogging in the quad but find something too in the greater intellectual rigour she brings to their discussion and thus their own work.
Isabella Laughland and Makir Ahmed are both strong as the students, worldly-wise in many ways though still with much to learn, and Oliver Hembrough’s Chris rounds out the cast well. The show lacks perhaps a little sharpness, something that will doubtless improve over the run – though James Turner’s traverse design does mean a lot of shifting furniture on and off the stage regardless – it’s more the pace that sags a bit towards the end of the overly lengthy first half. That said, I was impressed with the way in which the second act eschews overwrought theatrics for quietly moving restraint in its denouement, proving it is never too late to learn.