REVIEW: Next Lesson (Pleasance Theatre)

Michael and GailNext Lesson is a play about sexuality, set in a school, written by an ex-teacher. Chris Woodley draws on his own experiences of working in secondary schools in this play which follows students and their teachers coming to terms with who they are. After receiving positive reviews for a preview at the Pleasance in April, Next Lesson now returns for a full run.

The play is a series of sketches; beginning in 1988 with the announcement of Section 28. Against this backdrop we first meet Michael as an awkward fourteen year old struggling to tell his mother that he’s gay. We return to Michael’s story several times as the play progresses through the years. By the time we reach the present day we have met sixteen characters, all played by the cast of six, each fighting their own battles both internal and external.

Stanley Eldridge as Michael is the only actor to play the same character throughout; he serves as the timekeeper, chalking up the current year in case the chosen song between scenes isn’t enough to fix us in time. One of the questions posed by this play is whether anything much has changed as the time passes.

Esmé Patey-Ford is impressive as she switches between four roles ranging from Michael’s mother, unsure of what to say to her son, to a lesbian PE teacher struggling with her relationship with a colleague.

The set is simple; most of the action takes place in classrooms. The transition between scenes is marked with blackout and a song from the year we’re moving to next. It’s almost as if we are back at school, moving from one lesson to the next as each sketch shows us a different character’s story. The play works well in the small space; being close to the actors helps draw us into their world.

I was fortunate to hear a Q&A session with Chris Woodley after the performance as he took questions from a group of GCSE students. He explained that the stories told in the play and the characters we see are an blend of people and experiences rather than his own story.  He was very clear that he does not see himself as Michael. This play is deserving of the praise it has received.   I hope it gets a longer run in a bigger space to reach a larger audience.

Reviewed by Rhiannon Evans