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To Sir With Love, Birmingham Repertory Theatre - review

Birmingham | Entertainment | Published:

The gasps of astonishment and distaste that repeatedly swept through the audience are true testament to the impact of this production – and of the young cast which took it on.

It was quite shocking to witness the casual racism so commonplace and unapologetically spouted in a time which seems a century away, certainly not in living memory.

The aggressive, offensive language was unpalatable for many in the audience with an audible disquiet.

The dialogue must have seemed quite shocking and almost unbelievable to the members of The Young Rep who delivered mature and confident performances in this challenging production.

To Sir With Love was, of course, a hugely successful film in 1967 starring Sidney Poitier and Lulu – prompting her number one single of the same name. It is based on E R Braithwaite's autobiographical novel of 1959.

It follows the fortunes of an educated black American engineer who, while struggling to find work, takes up a job teaching at an inner city London school. Social and racial tensions are at the centre of the story as the mild-mannered, dignified and respectful teacher battles to tame the disenchanted young adults before him.

The storyline is very similar in this adaptation although it is set now in Birmingham and there is a little more humour included in the stage production.

Taking centre stage is Philip Morris as the frustrated teacher Ricardo Braithwaite who is forced to face a wall of race-hate and contempt every day despite having moved to Britain to fight in the war. He emerges as a paragon of dignity and fortitude – mostly keeping his head in the face of conflict and adversity.

Morris, the Youth Theatre Director at the Rep, puts in a strong performance, particularly after the interval when Braithwaite's emotions really come to the fore.

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Matt Crosby plays the detestable fellow teacher Humphrey Weston who thoughtlessly displays the blatant and crass racism witnessed too often at that time. While the initial impressions are of disgust, we do get to see a different side to Weston and the character also brings some humour to the gritty production.

As does Polly Lister in her role as down-to-earth, veteran teacher Vivienne Clintridge.

But much of the credit for this production must go to the young members of the cast. Eden Peppercorn was quite outstanding as the outspoken pupil Monica Page while Charlie Mills shone as the wannabe rebel Denham. Troubled student Elijah McDowell brought a tear to the eye but all of the youngsters showed talent beyond their years.

The play was a rollercoaster of emotions from start to finish from shock and disgust, to anger, to humour and happiness, to frustration, disappointment and sorrow.

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A melting pot of emotions in a powerful play that punches you hard in the face from the off and leaves you reeling as the storyline follows the torment of this inspirational character fighting to give his deprived students hope of a future.

Runs at Birmingham Rep until Saturday May 6.

By Diane Davies

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