Of all the plays and films about inspirational teachers To Sir With Love stands head and shoulders ahead of the class.
Perhaps because it’s a true story, or maybe because, even today, more than 60 years after it was written, we can still relate to its core themes of bigotry, racism and a condemnation of an education system that fails the most needy.
ER Braithwaite’s powerful story has been skilfully adapted for the modern stage by East Is East playwright, Ayub Khan Din. It opened at the Royal & Derngate this week to a well deserved standing ovation and brought a new meaning to the words inspiration, courage and determination.
The leading man, Ansu Kabia, was determined that the show must go on and appeared with his left arm in a sling after suffering an accident on his bike.
And to cap it all the author, now 101-years-old, surprised everyone by flying across the Atlantic to attend the opening night.
The audience had no idea that sitting among them in the stalls was the author, a sprightly elderly gentleman, looking much younger than his years, but it was just the sort of emotional icing on the cake that this tearjerker deserved.
To Sir With Love is set in a progressive school established amid the slums and bombed out buildings of London’s East End. It’s just after the war and England is a country full of hope - unless you’re a cockney kid who society has given up on before you’re old enough to tie your shoelaces.
The head is a kindly, forward-thinking, old gent with some wild ideas about education (a very under-used Matthew Kelly). He pretty much lets the children set their own work and asks them to write reports on their teachers at the end of each week.
Into the fray comes Rick Braithwaite who, though educated at Cambridge and flew Spits in the war, has absolutely no teaching qualifications. But because of the colour of his skin he has been unable to get work in his chosen field of electronics.
Will he fare any better in the classroom? First he has to knock back the horrendous bigotry of fellow teacher Weston (a superb performance from Paul Kemp) and then tame the wild things that make up his class.
Rick soon realises the traditional hard line approach won’t work and eventually he comes around to the head’s way of thinking. Through perseverance, and trial and error, the tough kids are tamed (sob).
It’s hardly an original line but it is impossible to fault. The acting is first rate, from the teaching staff as well as the pupils.
It was interesting to hear the audience’s reaction to the racism that runs through the story. There was a highly audible collective intake of breath every time Weston came out with a bigoted comment. The remarks shocked a modern audience to the core.
Kabia came across as charismatic and totally compelling. You really felt his pain (not least when he attempted a dance, gingerly taking his arm out of its sling - what a trooper) and anger at his treatment by others.
Kelly had little to do other than come on now and then and spout a homily about his whacky educational ideas. He made such a great job as a reluctant teacher in Educating Rita so it was disappointing not to see more of him putting his ideas into action.
This is a tremendous production which has stood the test of time. I’m pretty sure Mr B gave it top marks.
To Sir With Love plays until Sep 28 before embarking on a national tour. For tickets call 01604 624811 or visit www.royalandderngate.co.uk