There is no shortage of solo shows about valiant teachers. Among the best are Nilaja Sun’s
For a play about a writing teacher, the writing in Plain English is unforgivably pedestrian.
These plays imbue heroic, almost saintly status on teachers, make administrators the villains and are meant to illustrate the personal and professional sacrifices teachers make in the cause of education.
Following that template, cliché for cliché, is Plain English, written by and starring Terry Burns, directed by Clara Onyemere. Burns plays Mr. England, the new creative writing teacher in an inner city London school full of rowdy toughs from abusive homes. He gives working class accents to all the students, yells loudly as a bullying head of department, Mr. Cooper, and makes the teachers in the smoking lounge a pack of hissing biddies.
Burns also plays his main character’s parents. Dad is supportive; Mum thinks her son is ‘squandering [his] potential’ by teaching ‘in a bog-standard comprehensive school’.
The antagonist in Mr. England’s class is bad kid Wayne. Other teachers fear him. But Mr. England lets him write rap lyrics about his love of boxing and his dreams of wealth and fame. Inspired, Wayne starts doing his homework in other classes. Of course, he does.
Then Mr. England is caught in a compromising position with a girl in his classroom. The situation is misunderstood, but it puts a cloud of suspicion over him.
For a play about a writing teacher, the writing in Plain English is unforgivably pedestrian. There’s not a fresh angle on the subject matter and the characters are tired stereotypes. Burns gives a hammy performance full of broad pantomime and he’s been directed to deliver his lines either to stage right or stage left, forcing him to do the tennis match back-and-forth in profile. He also speaks upstage often, which gives the audience his back.
Wearing black shirt, black trousers and black sneakers, Burns blends into the black stage and black walls behind him on the small stage at theSpace at Surgeons’ Hall. His physical silhouette becomes simply a floating head, the rest of him disappearing into the void. His only set piece is a chair. The stage squeaks under his feet as he jumps around center stage, changing personae and accents.
As the play limps past the 60-minute mark, it feels like class is running overtime and someone has forgotten to ring the bell to end it.