Every Day I Make Greatness Happen – Hampstead Theatre

Minutes into ‘Every Day I Make Greatness Happen’, I felt like I knew the characters already. There is something so familiar and easy about Richard Molloy’s dialogue that I almost could have wandered into a GCSE retake classroom. The excessive slang of the three unfortunate pupils, who having failed their GCSE English the previous year are forced to take afterschool classes alongside their AS levels, brings humour and credibility. All too often the voices of teenagers are awkward and forced in the pen of an adult writer; here the playwright’s teaching career lends confidence and authenticity to the dialogue. Of course there are jokes at the expense of the students’ grammatical errors and dialect – “I ain’t no homophone but that’s pure gayness” – but the play pushes far beyond that.The comedy is built on the twin tenets of irony and apathy. Overstretched teacher Miss Murphy, when asked what she sees when she walks into a classroom, responds with “a cultural vacuum.” And yet culture is inherent in ‘problem student’ Kareem’s mode of communication. Kareem, played with utmost hilarity by Moe Bar-El, makes dozens of pop cultural references throughout the play, and puts on several accents and voices that refer back to cult films, stereotypes, and even hint at his own mixed cultural identity. Put in the cold and clinical terms of GCSE English, he is varying his tone, recreating the voices of others, experimenting with dialect and slang for comedic effect … and he is fantastically good at it. He even begins the play with a quote from Shakespeare, intentionally using bathos to warp its original poignancy. Molloy presents us with a first-hand insight into the irony of the exam system, where creative voices are stifled in the study of, well, the creative use of language and voice. The title of the play, with its hint to an overly idealistic view of teaching, is laced with irony.

The flaws in the education system – particularly the examination system – are present in the frequently apathetic Miss Murphy (Susan Stanley) and the highly apathetic classroom itself. The small set is evocative: the precise shade of clinical green carpet; the uncomfortable plastic-backed chairs and cheap laminated tables; the push-up ceiling tiles. Most of all, the drip. The leaking ceiling is a recurring joke throughout the play, but it becomes increasingly symbolic of the barriers faced by the three pupils and the teacher alike. At one point, Miss Murphy calls a student towards her and points to the leak – “that is apathy”, she says. It is a powerful metaphor: a school that can’t even keep its classrooms in sanitary condition is just a microcosm of an examination system that prejudices against ‘incorrect’ dialects and accents, and sees students as nothing but candidate numbers.

That said, the play’s comment on the school system is more of a generic negative undercurrent than a pointed or politicised attack. The focus is on the individuals: it is a character study, not a satire. There are many moments where only two characters are interacting onstage, so there is a lot of room for character development and an exploration of ever-shifting group dynamics. This was done at its best in a scene between Alisha (Sofia Barclay) and Kareem, as she helps him add punctuation to a piece of coursework whilst explaining the deeply tragic circumstances of the previous year that have led her to be in the afterschool classes. The skill is in Barclay’s delivery: she is reserved, guarded, matter-of-fact. Her repetition of “full stop” as she punctuates Kareem’s work is darkly comic, interrupting the heavy silences of the more serious conversation and creating a guarded, tense atmosphere.

Director Alice Hamilton has done a wonderful job of making the characters feel realistic and of balancing humour with sentiment. However, there is one vital flaw to this otherwise highly enjoyable and thought-provoking show, which is perhaps an issue with the script itself. For a play so driven by character, it never quite delves deep enough into the pupils’ motives and backgrounds. Upon closer inspection, there is something formulaic and not entirely original about the various emotional issues and life events that bring each student to the classroom. Molloy’s cause and effect approach is too simplistic: every character has one specific issue at home which manifests in one type of behaviour. It is not so obviously linear whilst watching the production because the audience are drip-fed information, which forces a slow realisation and puzzling together of clues about the various backstories. Once out of the theatre though, and upon reflection, I found the lack of complexity in the characters disappointing.

This show will spark a lot of discussion about the education system and it will certainly entertain you. But it needs some more ‘depth of analysis’ before it can reach the top band of the markscheme.

On until 20th October, tickets available here.

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Claudia Graham

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