Oh how easily this ambitious project could have fallen flat on its face and oh how wonderfully it sustains itself. Making their debut at the Festival Fringe, Westcliff Boys Theatre bring their take on Samuel Beckett with Waiting for OFSTED.
A delightful gem of a production.
It is impossible to know the background to this production without launching into what must be a debate their school is having. Westcliff High School for Boys (WHSB), is a grammar school in Essex that has held Academy status since 2010. Last year, WHSB was placed 34th nationally in academic league tables. However, the School has had no Drama Department until this year and has never offered Drama or Theatre Studies at either GCSE or A Level. Instead, it is run as an extracurricular activity. On the basis of this premier it should find a place on the curriculum immediately and the school could forthwith establish an outstanding reputation for drama and for producing theatre practitioners.
The School’s valid concern for achieving excellence in examination results, educational rankings and OFSTED reports clearly provides a context and stimulus for this play that challenges the obsession many schools have with these measures of success to the detriment of a rounded education. Without alluding directly to it, The Dead Poets Society scenario is clearly raised along with questioning many of the more absurd aspects of contemporary educational practice.
Waiting for OFSTED freely adopts and adapts aspects of both the style and content of the original in a way that cleverly adds to the humour of this performance. Estragon and Vladimir become two schoolboys in a classroom. As Beckett said, ‘My play was written for small men locked in a big space’. The acting area may not be vast, but they are in theSpace @ Niddry Street. Instead of struggling to take his shoes off the boy obsessively tightens his laces and wrestles with making the knot. The carrot becomes a banana, there are references to being beaten, one lad sits for most of the time while the other moves around, they gaze into the distance and describe a painting of a tree and a mischievous, even smaller boy plays tricks. The pauses are stretched to the limit, but they capture the moment just in time. Later scenes, involving more students from the fifteen-strong cast, are less tied to the original script, but remain consistent with the genre.
Vivian Mercier once described Waiting for Godot as ‘a play in which nothing happens, that yet keeps audiences glued to their seats’. In Waiting for OFSTED there are more instantly recognisable things happening, but we remained firmly seated in admiration at what is a delightful gem of a production.