Updated: Sep 23, 2021
Helen Monks and Matt Woodhead
LUNG Theatre Company
Aldridge Studio, The Lowry, Salford Quays
8-12 October 2019; 75min, no interval
Agit-Prop has become a dirty word in theatre. Who wants to spend money to be belaboured by political earnestness, however worthy? Theatre is about fun, right?
Lung theatre company members, as the name suggests, pride themselves on being loud – indeed, "theatre at its loudest", and their approach is unashamedly about agitation and propaganda. But the energy and ingenuity packed into this show means the audience never feels bothered or belaboured, but rather bewitched by the rapid fluency of Matt Woodhouse's staging and bewildered by what the show reveals of the casuistry of our political and media authorities.
Trojan Horse takes its title from the allegation that surfaced a few years ago that a number of schools in Birmingham were grooming their Muslim students towards extremism and terrorism. An orchestrated media campaign resulted in the denigration of these schools and the loss of jobs and reputation of several teachers and governors.
Lung's aim here is to correct the record by demonstrating how from one anonymous letter of doubtful provenance, the authorities, culminating in Michael Gove's Department of Education, achieved the moral panic which blighted the lives and careers of students and staff.
Director Matt Woodhouse and his co-writer Helen Monks (who has the very different Upstart Crow among her writing and acting credits) have fashioned their text from 200 hours of interviews with people close to the issue, as well as public documents. This honourable documentary method is key to convincing an audience of the truth of their tale.
Their text is brought to life by an ensemble cast of only five young Asian actors, Komal Amin, Mustafa Chaudry, Gurkiran Kaur, Quasim Mahmood and Keshini Misha, all of whom act with intelligence and verve. They are first seen sitting at desks in an examination room, diligently – as later becomes clear – intent on improving their school's GCSE grade score to well over 70% from the previous 40. These desks are then slid expertly round the stage as each short scene unfolds, doubling as wardrobes as the actors pluck from them a scarf, a blazer or a coat to inhabit the many different characters in the story.
Principal among these are the chair of governors of Park View, who worked for 20 years to drive his school upwards; a teacher who, after his own schooling had failed him, took a tip from a colleague at Carphone Warehouse to become a teacher himself; a local councillor finding herself responsible and in the midst of this storm at only 25; a pupil gently discovering she is gay, and a headteacher embittered by dismissal. Only in the last case did I feel that the complexity of the situation was not fully explored.
Apparently Lung is to take this show to Parliament, which is exactly where it should be seen and especially heard.
Many MPs will doubtless dismiss it as "agit-prop", but before they do they should reflect on their own use of propaganda as shown here.