This year Birmingham Repertory Theatre’s youth theatre, The Young REP, bring a tale of innocence, acceptance and learning as they stage Ayub Khan-Din’s adaptation of E.R. Braithwaite’s autobiographical novel To Sir, With Love. It tells the tale of a hopeful electrics engineer who, after serving in the RAF during the War, finds the love for a new career as a teacher. As the tale continues, the story concludes with an endearing present from the children signed, To Sir, With Love. It is a commentary on modern society and brings post-war racism to the forefront of the piece, making it as relevant now as to when it was written.
Philip Morris leads the piece with strength as the passive Ricardo Braithwaite. In direction with Gwenda Hughes and Tom Saunders, he creates a real raw story for this character who changes the attitudes of the children, under the inspiration of the innovative head teacher Leon Florian (Andrew Pollard) – a character based on E.R. Braithwaite’s experience with pioneering educator Alex Bloom. However, it is his relationship with the young actors that is particularly poignant in this play, the only point I would make was that they are simply under used in the show and it would have been lovely to see even more from them. Aside from this, there is real strength in the performances from the talented Young REP. Charlie Mills is suitably cast in the role of the antagonistic Denham, who has a real turning point in the play from aggressor to peacemaker. Alice McGowan also stands out as the youthful innocent who takes a shine to Mr Braithwaite; her character nicely contrasts that of Mills and others who antagonize the action.
Also of note is the tight relationship between young Elijah McDowell’s Seales and Morris’ Braithwaite. Seen as a figure of advice, this connection reminds us that teachers are here for so much more than just to educate. One moment that felt a little underdeveloped was the death of Seales’ mum, as it could have been used more to heighten the duo’s relationship.
Simon Bond’s lighting design is simple and enhances the natural state of the story well and in collaboration with Michael Holt’s design it creates a nice setting for the show. At times, Holt’s set feels quite sparse, but is strong in the classroom scenes when the school desks fill the downstage area. Combined with the projection design of Louis Price, it comments nicely on the action that happens on stage.
To Sir, With Love reminds us all of the importance of understanding and education. It is a play that scrutinizes the audience in their reactions to the racism and actions on stage, ensuring that the main purpose is achieved: an education.
Catch it at The REP; it’s a real eye opener.
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