If you’ve seen, heard, read or talked to Jess Green in the last few years, chances are you know something’s wrong with our education system. Leicester’s own spoken word agitator supreme found viral fame in 2014 with Dear Mr Gove, her impassioned takedown of the then-Education Secretary back when he was famous for stealth privatisation of schools (as opposed to now, when he’s famous for that but also getting stuck in a toilet that one time).
Green’s poetry on her time working in a school developed from standalone pieces to book to CD to stage show, all bearing the name Burning Books. That same title has carried over to the body of work’s ultimate form, Green’s first stage play – not that you’d know it was her first. Following the first few weeks of trainee teacher Kat (Rebecca Newman) in a council estate secondary school, Burning Books takes every ounce of Green’s writing on the state of British schools, and transforms them into a visceral, emotional experience of what teaching has become.
Green’s writing, full of sharp, natural dialogue that makes investment in the stories told so very easy, is translated flawlessly to the stage by Julia Thomas’ tight and snappy direction. The play is paced superbly, walking nervously but unrelentingly through the 50-hour-a-week grind of modern teaching, and pulling no punches in the content or the telling.
Newman is note-perfect as Kat, visibly taking every knock of the system, every jibe from her colleagues, and being ground down to desperation and fear. Similarly excellent are her supporting cast, with Mary Jo Randle equal parts entertaining and infuriating as the underhanded-but-underappreciated Mrs Sizzly. Scott (Conor Deane)’s emotional journey is subtly heartbreaking, too, its climax a beautiful intertwining of every character’s stories.
But perhaps the crucial relationship is between Kat and jaded veteran teacher and union organiser Janine (Erin Geraghty). An all-too-real illustration of how people with similar interests, who ought to be comrades-in-arms, end up worn down and fractious from their oppressive environment, it’s a tale familiar to activists of all schools. Both Kat and Janine’s slow-burning friction and their gradual journey to solidarity are stories – lessons – as culturally vital as they’ve ever been.
Made with professionalism belied by its modest setting in Curve’s Rehearsal Room 2 studio, Burning Books is a production slick enough to convey its message with forceful immediacy. As a first play for Green, it’s an astonishing achievement, but more important is how strongly the work stands on its own two feet – a warning of the knives hanging over our education system, a lament for those caught up trying to make a broken system work to their own detriment, and a message of some hope, yes, but also a tremendously well-made and well-delivered piece of theatre. Talent, much of it local, abounds in Burning Books – every name here is one to watch, and we pity whichever powerful figure Jess decides to take on next.
Burning Books runs at Curve until Saturday 28 October. Tickets are extremely limited.