Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

Reading between the cracks

Groping for words

Moorpool Players

Moorpool Hall, Harborne


THERE are some nights when the house lights fade, the curtain rises and everything just seems to click, and then what follows is a delight.

Moorpool have managed that with Sue Townsend’s sharply observed 1983 comedy about adult illiteracy. It is packed with laughs yet, a generation on, the problem it highlights, adult illiteracy, is still a scourge of our society with the figures little changed from the play’s setting in Thatcher’s Britain.

The date is fixed by radio broadcasts with snippets of news of the time introducing the two acts which are set in a Clapham primary school in London where Joyce - nice house, university degrees, married to a successful doctor – is about to start teaching an evening class for adult literacy.

Her marriage of 29 years has become rather aimless, she and her doctor husband have seemingly drifted apart, and the class, the first she has ever taken, is an attempt to give her life some purpose and direction.

Laura Bunster gives us a still-attractive, well-spoken, rather prim, well-meaning woman who, with just six weeks training as a teacher, wants to change the world, or at least open it up a a crack for those less fortunate.poster for Groping for Words

Then there are her students. There is Thelma, “Thelma Churchill - no relation”, as if anyone would think there was. She has come to London from Northampton, and Emma Suffield gives us a mix of bolshie and vulnerable as the untrained nanny on slave wages.

Already exploited by the wealthy Kensington couple employing her, she has been told to teach their three-year-old daughter to read ready for a posh prep school and she is terrified her illiteracy will be discovered and the sack will follow.

So Thelma is desperate the learn reading – but only the outdated Janet and John books, one by one, to keep her one word ahead of a three year old.

She is the only one who admits she cannot read or write from the beginning and has is a deep seated resentment and anger, and perhaps even acceptance, at being written off, called backward, slow and all the rest by her teachers at school.

She also has an innocent, inquiring and very down to earth mind which means tact is an alien concept as seen when she questions Joyce's love life and offers medical advice on why her teacher might be chidless

Mark Earey’s George is from Huddersfield, in London looking for a job. His wife has run off with another man and gone with his married daughter to Australia – and he can’t read his daughter’s letters.

His old employer in a hardware store died and the old ways along with George’s uncomplicated life behind a counter died with him. The dead boss’s son though modernised the firm; computers and stock control require literacy so George, so far out of his depth he was drowning, walked out into the wilderness in despair. When you can't even read about vacancies or fill in application forms finding a job is never more than a dream.

Then there is the Jack, or in this case, Kevin-the-lad, 19, insolent, arrogant and the acting head caretaker after the incumbent, Horace, was suspended until he can explain why the bulk of the school’s annual order of cleaning supplies are being stored in his back bedroom.

There is a telling scene at the start when neither George nor Kevin can read notices on the board and both make excuses as to why, excuses the illiterate probably make every day – forgotten glasses, new contact lenses or whatever excuse will suffice.

And then Kevin has a permanent hand injury, prominently bandaged, caused by any manner of fanciful events he makes up on the spur of the moment, an injury which conveniently prevents him from being able to write.


Rick Quarmby gives us a sad, outsider of a figure. The only one of his family with a job, who has been cast adrift into a hostile world by the suspension of Horace, who might have been a thief, but was Kevin’s protection.

He give the impression he is getting on just fine and doesn’t need to read or write to carry on with his life. Letters and forms can be ignored and promotion to head caretaker when Horace is finally sacked is a mere formality, at least in his world. Alone though there is frustration, anger and even a shame which prevents him asking for help.

While George, whose vocabulary is gleaned from listening to Radio 4, accepts his lot and wants to do something about it and Thelma lives in fear she will be exposed as the backward person she was always told she was, Kevin, who shows flashes of aptitude when it comes to words, rails against society and a system which, in all honesty, has let him, and Thelma and before them George down.

Although he does have some respect for Joyce which perhaps delineates the division of the classes in one sentence. "She's a decent women. She's got Marks & Spencer labels all over her."

Joyce and Kevin give us the two explosions of emotion in the play, he at his frustration of a world where he is an outsider and she at Kevin after he sexually assaults Thelma in a crude, jokey, lads’ sort of way.

As a play it has plenty of laughs as well as some well mangled words, Thelma declaring that her arrival in this world was unplanned – “ I was an afterbirth’, she explains. But it also has a lot of compassion and sympathy for a discarded underclass in society – even Joyce’s class has been abandoned, forced to sit on tiny chairs in the crèche, the only room available.

A mention here for a clever, simple set, which gives us the classroom, complete with Wendy house,  and caretaker’s reception desk which are separated effectively by imagination, lighting and paint colour on the walls.

There are plenty of laughs and, apart from Kevin’s outburst that the likes of middle class Joyce will need to look out when the revolution comes, there is no hint of politics or preaching, yet there is an underlying, unspoken indignation, that a civilised society can abandon illiterates.

The play was written by Townsend to give them a voice, and yes it is the Adrian Mole Sue Townsend who died last year. She is best known for her nine novels and one play about Adrian Mole but she wrote six other novels as well as two non-fiction books and 11 other plays.

And it is a strange phenomenon that while GCSE A* to C passes in English have gone up 30 per cent in the past 10 years the underlying level of adult illiteracy has remained unchanged.

Latest estimates put the number of functionally illiterate adults in Britain at between six and eight million and of those up to three million are, for all practical purposes, totally illiterate.

All of which, sadly, makes Moorpool’s production as relevant today as it was in 1983. Dan Birch has done a fine job on his directing debut keeping up a comfortable pace with the help of an excellent cast who develop an enjoyable and entertaining stage chemistry. The curtain rose and everything just clicked. To 16-05-15

Roger Clarke


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