Maya Achan as Jessica, a rebellious teenage student who is flagged as a potentially ‘problematic’ caseBen Owen

Teaching British Values is set in a secondary school and follows the implementation of the fictitious anti-extremism program RESPECT, a successor to the current UK government scheme Prevent. Jessica (Maya Acharn) is a rebellious teenage student who is flagged by RESPECT’s local enforcer, Parsons (Jenny Lazarus), as a potentially ‘problematic’ case to be sent to a special institution for behavioural correction. Jane (Erika Price), her teacher, is quietly sympathetic and tries to hinder Parson’s machinations, but soon discovers that it is her own career, not just Jessica’s status, that is on the line.

Cambridge student Jamie Webb’s debut piece is clearly intended not just as theatre, but also as political commentary, zooming in on the flaws of Prevent, which have been extensively criticised in some quarters, and offering us a vision of where it might lead if left unchecked. Unfortunately, while it acquits itself honourably, the show falls short of its ambitious double-barrelled agenda.

The best thing I can say about the way the show was staged was that I had neither a high nor a low opinion of it. I enjoyed how the show played with the boundary between stage and audience, by, for example, having English teacher Richard (Rory Russell) give an assembly talk straight at the audience, complete with a knowingly bad PowerPoint presentation, but this was sadly an exception to the generally static staging. Characters simply moved between two more-or-less identically lit areas, with the furniture you’d expect to see in a classroom and staff room. Light levels were sometimes too low, leaving some actors delivering their lines in shadow. There was also an inexplicable 15-minute intermission about 25 minutes in, for a show that would otherwise run barely over an hour. Given that the script is mostly characters talking, and that some of the dialogue isn’t exactly gripping, the production would definitely benefit from simply moving faster.

The cast is generally competent, but the standout performance is from Lazarus, who plays Parsons with brilliant sanctimony. She carries the play with the subtle combination of malice and pettiness that we expect of the most obnoxious bureaucrats. Russell also gives a very believable portrayal of Richard’s struggle to choose between the ideals of the RESPECT program and supporting his close friend and fellow teacher Jane, which lends some nuance to the central conflict of the story.

Jenny Lazarus as Parsons, who embodies the “subtle combination of malice and pettiness”Ben Owen

The script has some bright spots. The audience is treated to a lesson on Macbeth right before a major betrayal unfolds, which was a subtlety of foreshadowing I loved. More broadly, it puts a spotlight on how the use of jargon and technical vocabulary (e.g. ‘restorative conversations’, ‘flagging cases’) is dehumanising, insulating decision-makers from the very real consequences they inflict on people. It targets the empty concept of ‘British values’ to show that in practice, these are whatever the people in charge want them to be. Parsons claims to be defending the values of liberal democracy but gives the lie to that statement in the way in which she treats Jessica – deciding with little due process that she is indeed a problem and then manipulating her so RESPECT can take action.

Unfortunately, I don’t think the script manages to answer the central political question it claims to engage. The play quite rightly rejects the use of terror attacks as a justification for all manner of rights violations by presenting characters who do just that. But what is the moral here? Is it that while terrorism is obviously awful, it does not give us a reason to systematically single out an entire group, the vast majority of whom are innocent?

For a show that bills itself as a political play, I expected a deeper engagement with the question of how liberty is to be balanced against security – an important nuance that the show unfortunately rides roughshod over. Parsons memorably argues that it is completely logical to “give up a little bit of our liberty for additional security” – an argument that, in context, we are clearly intended to reject. Parsons’ line presumably references Benjamin Franklin’s remark that “those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety”, but misses out the important qualifiers: that the statement only stands when ‘essential liberty’ and ‘temporary safety’ are in question. In general, there is nothing necessarily wrong or even exceptional about a compromise of liberty for security, and institutionalised racism is not the only compromise of this kind. At times, however, the play comes dangerously close to missing this nuance. Therefore, while it is stronger as a work of drama, it is unfortunately not a particularly astute piece of political commentary, despite its billing.

Teaching British Values is on at the Robinson College Auditorium until Saturday 10 February

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