E8 @ Pleasance Dome
Marika McKennell's E8, an exploration of social inequality set in a Pupil Referral Unit, is compelling and effective
It’s late on a Friday afternoon in a shabby, cramped classroom in East London. The school day is long over, but teenager Bailey sits at a desk, idly seething, as the headteacher, Polly, organises some paperwork. This is not a standard school, but a Pupil Referral Unit (PRU) – an alternative provision for young people who have fallen through the cracks of mainstream education. Troubled home lives, multiple deprivations, and layers of systemic oppression define the lives of the pupils here, hence Bailey’s reluctance to go home.
It’s Polly’s last day working at the school, but for her, there’s still so much to do. Like Bailey, she seems rather reluctant to leave. The subtext is clear – this institution is under-resourced, functioning only thanks to the dedication of the staff, who are enormously personally invested in ensuring the needs of the young people they work with are met. Bailey and Polly are soon joined by Mo, another member of staff, and Ryan, a pupil. The relationships between the four are in turns fractious and loving. Their backgrounds and reasons for being there are disparate, but when viewed together, paint a nuanced portrait of injustice and inequality in the UK.
E8 is largely successful in avoiding the potential pitfalls of this kind of production. The pupils are not presented as reductive stereotypes, as could so easily be the case, but are recognisable young people, played compellingly by Alice Vilanculo and Harry McMullan. These strong performances and the intuitive nature of most of the script prevent the play’s sentiment from seeming mawkish.
That said, there are a few moments where the dialogue seems a little contrived – a conversation between the two members of staff about educational legislation, for example, feels somewhat shoehorned in. Similarly, the limitations on movement imposed by the small performance space render some of the outbursts of violence a little anticlimactic and unconvincing.
E8 loses a trace of its immediate relevance when performed in Scotland, as a different education system and different government policies mean that there are fewer of these alternative provision establishments here than in England. However, writer Marika McKennell has drawn upon her own experiences working in education to create this play, and her commitment to social justice gives E8 heart and credibility. Inequality exists across the UK, and for addressing this, McKennell is to be commended.
E8, Pleasance Dome (QueenDome), until 25 Aug (not 14), 4.10pm, £12-11