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

Finding the right expression

Groping for Words

Swan Theatre Amateur Company

Swan Theatre, Worcester


IT is one of those strange facts of life that while the number of pupils passing English GCSE with an A* to C grade has gone up by almost 30 per cent in the past 10 years, the level of adult illiteracy has remained virtually static.

There are around five million adults who are ‘functionally illiterate” and of those about 1.7 million who are to all intents and purposes illiterate, living in a world where virtually every door is closed, a world which is explored in Sue Townsend's 1983 play.

The play railed against the levels of adult literacy thirty years ago and it is perhaps a condemnation of society, or perhaps it is merely just a feature, that the figures from then are very little changed to those of today. The play, set in 1983, is looking a little dated in places and its references to Margaret Thatcher are perhaps a little unfortunate this week, but that is the time and age when it was set and the problems it explores have not gone away a generation later.

The story is simple Joyce, played with a fragile primness by Jane Lush, is middle class, well-off and married to a GP – a marriage which, 29 years on, is drifting along with no hand on the tiller. Joyce wants to put something back so decides to teach adult literacy as a night class at a local primary school in Clapham.

That brings her into contact with George, played with a deference, or perhaps resignation, to the world around him with gentlemanly old fashioned manners by Ian Mason. George lost his job when his old employer died and his son introduced systems requiring the ability to read and write. He also lost his divorced and remarried wife and daughter who have left to make a new life in Australia. To make his life complete he has also lost his home and come down to London looking for work. He lives out of two carrier bags and is finding out about adult literacy classes “for a friend”.


Then there is Thelma, from Northampton, who is nanny, on slave wages, to a wealthy couple and is in danger of being exposed as illiterate when her employer wants her to teach her three year old daughter to read to help her into a posh prep school. Cora Jackson plays the part beautifully with all the frustrations and anger of someone who was written off at school as slow and backward. She is the only one who admits she has a problem but only wants to read the Janet and John books to keep one word ahead of the child in her care.

Then there is the acting head caretaker Kevin, aged 19, a stroppy, arrogant teenager who has taken on the top job after his boss, Horace, was suspended when half the education department's cleaning stock was found in his back bedroom.

Calum Witney shows fine timing with his collection of one liners, Ronnie Barker's Fletcheresque at times,  and gives us the worst side of callow youth. His sister, Femke, incidentally, played an equally stroppy teenager, Naomi, in Asking for Murder at STAC last Christmas. The boots she refused to move are probably still on stage somewhere.

Kevin has a wrist injury caused by a bite from a ferret, or a stabbing with a cocktail stick, you take your choice but there will be another injury along in a minute. Whatever the cause, the injury prevents him from writing.

The play explores the hopelessness of lives without literacy, the restrictions, the opportunities closed off and the despair of those who live lives having to hide the fact they have never mastered the most basic of skills.

It offers no solutions, and the fact that the numbers have hardly changed in 30 years perhaps indicates that solutions have been hard to find. At times the dialogue is very funny, at times sad and the play is sometimes both all at once such as when George, homeless with limited washing facilities, has a quick wash using he goldfish bowl.

The studio staging is a simple one of a primary school classroom with tiny furniture with Kevin's office at the side, allowing for two sets separated by just lighting and the direction by Pauline Lowe keeps up a good pace – not always easy with just a cast of four and a single set – and brings out not only the pathos and despair but also the humour.

The result is a fine, believable cast in a well directed play with a few laughs and something to think about. To 13-04-13.

Roger Clarke 

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