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The Be All and End All review at York Theatre Royal – ‘frustratingly narrow’

Imogen Stubbs and Matt Whitchurch in The Be All and End All at York Theatre Royal. Photo: Anthony Robling

Having examined the hothouse environment of British schooling from students’ perspectives in A Level Playing Field, the second of Jonathan Lewis’ trilogy of education plays turns to the parents’ point of view.

The focus of The Be All and End All is privately-educated Tom (Matt Whitchurch) and the suffocating expectations of his parents, politician Mark (Jonathan Lewis) and publishing exec Charlotte (Imogen Stubbs). As A-Level exams approach, the question is how far Tom, his parents and his girlfriend Frida (Robyn Cara) will go to ensure success.

There are tough questions to be asked of how we teach and test our students. Really, though, this is about a slender slice of Britain’s education system. Tom’s schooling, his dad calculates, has cost a whopping £650,000. His anxiety-laced experience, though illuminating the crippling stresses of modern secondary education, is underpinned by privilege – the sort of privilege that can get you into Oxbridge regardless of ability.

The play is solidly crafted, if a bit schematic, but it suffers from a narrowness of perspective. Neither a full-on lambasting of the privilege it pinpoints nor a wider critique of the UK’s schooling system, Lewis’ text is peppered with references to contemporary debates – Brexit, the generation gap, the dominance of technology – that dissolve away into an increasingly histrionic family drama.

There are some good gags, and Lewis smartly subverts a couple of the expectations he tees up. There’s also a compelling performance from the playwright as Mark, who has entitlement dripping from every pore. Too often, though, this feels like privileged, superficial hand-wringing over a problem with much deeper roots.

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Timely but frustratingly narrow interrogation of Britain’s education system