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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Almeida


  Sian Brooke, David Troughton, Sorcha Cusack, Tom Riley and Tracey Ullman/ Ph: Hugo Glendinning

Stephen Poliakoff’s first stage play in 12 years will keep his reputation as one of Britain’s top dramatists intact. Television dramatists, that is.
While his return revives previously established Poliakoff themes and concerns, such as urban living and how a city moulds its children into mature, well-adjusted adults, his latest play makes for far less essential viewing than his recent television offerings. My City, which is directed by the author, is however very intriguing for much of its two hours and 40 minutes. 

Anybody who went to school will know how odd the notion is of teachers being real people who have lives outside school premises. So it is entirely reasonable for Richard (Tom Riley) to be especially curious about Miss Lambert, whom he encounters for the first time in 20 years with the former primary school head laid out on a London park bench. Lambert, very well played by an enigmatic Tracey Ullman, who wears a silvery wig that makes her look rather like Helen Mirren, is the visionary teacher who, when Tom was a stuttering boy, hauled him out of the mental prison of attention deficit, allowing him to become the fully functional human being that he is today. 
The chance meeting leads to a night of adventure during which Richard and his fellow former pupil Julie (Sian Brooke), who Lambert also helped overcome learning difficulties, discover why their teacher spends her retirement walking around some of London’s more dangerous districts after dark. On the night they meet for a drink, the teacher is joined by her former assistants, Minken and Summers (David Troughton and Sorcha Cusack), who, just as they did during school assembly all those years ago, become characters in Lambert’s stories. 
A bit like Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, My City is a plea for creative teaching. That you cannot spark the imagination of children solely by sticking to the national curriculum, is a lesson contained in both plays. The flashbacks in Poliakoff’s reveal that Lambert’s unorthodox methods immersed her pupils in stories that conveyed and conjured a sense of history discovered through the sound of past eras. It is a technique she uses to answer the persistent Richard’s questions about why she spends her nights on London streets. 

Poliakoff skillfully suspends the action in a world that could just as easily be supernatural. There is even a whiff of A Christmas Carol when Minken transports Richard and Julie back to their childhood using artifacts and recordings saved from the school years. Is all this real? Have Richard and Julie discovered that teachers don’t die, but become ghosts haunted by the disfunctioning societies they helped to create? Remember that My City opened only weeks after London and much of England suffered the worst riots in living memory. So there is an extra pertinence to the conclusion reached by these disillusioned teachers that their contribution to society has counted for little, if not nothing. 
But despite the intrigue, My City ultimately belongs to that school of plays whose rewards are less than those promised. The Sherlock-like denouement in which Richard reveals the truth about Lambert’s life – to herself as well as us – is even a tad embarrassing in its hackneyed form. And as with any play whose intriguing questions are followed by less interesting answers, this is an evening of diminishing returns. 


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