Jonathan Lewis is the writer and one of the stars of The Be All and End All, coming to York Theatre Royal. I got access to a Q&A with him discussing the inspiration for the play.
How did your son Abe inspire your play The Be All and End All?
The idea of a play about education happened when I was on holiday with my son after his GCSEs. He went to Latymer Upper School in Hammersmith which is one of these A-star factories, as I call them where it really is all about the league table position. I don’t think I had appreciated quite how much pressure he’d been under, not just from the school but his own sense of achievement.
You’ve written three plays on the Education, Education, Education theme – what was the first?
A Level Playing Field, staged with a cast of school leavers and professional director at the Jermyn Street Theatre in London in 2015. Chris Barton, an actor with whom I’d worked had become head of drama at Westminster School and brought a bunch of sixth formers to see a revival of my play Our Boys in the West End. Afterwards he said he’d like to commission me to write a play for the school’s sixth form and I went, ‘That’s just really weird because I’ve just started writing a play for a big group of kids’. He gave me access to the kids and I went to state schools too because I wanted to get a real mix of experiences. I spent a lot of time with my son who read bits of the play and go, ‘Yeah that works’ or ‘No I don’t believe that’. So I had this authenticity and the banter was the banter I’d heard him speak with his friends. Chris loved the play and began rehearsing the production. Then the headmaster banned the play because it was too close to the bone. Chris was determined to put on the play and we staged it at Jermyn Street Theatre ourselves.
Now comes The Be All and End All, the second of your Education, Education, Education trilogy.
While writing A Level Playing Field I realised it was more than one play. It was three plays – from the view of the students, the parents, and the teachers. We are all under the same kind of stress with education but in different ways. It really boils down to this idea of what you believe education should be. It seems that education is becoming more and more of a commodity, and it’s becoming about how to get an A star, how to judge people rather than being about a love of learning. Kids stop being curious when they are forced into a process that is judged. We will be breeding a whole generation of people – teachers, students, parents – with the idea that it’s not about learning but about a process that is judged. That can never be right.
Why make the father in The Be All and End All a politician?
It was sparked off by what happened to an MP whose wife took responsibility for something he’d done. I wanted an action that seemed quite small and innocuous that could build into something huge and bring someone down. So I wanted him to be in an area where you could make a difference, like politics. I wanted it to be about a family but I wanted it to be epic as well.
You’re an army scholar who became an actor – how did that happen?
When I was invalided out I had always wanted to act so it seemed a logical thing to want to have a go at acting. There are a lot of similarities between acting and being a soldier. You’re playing a role, putting on a costume, a uniform and have to learn your lines in the same way you do as a soldier. There were a lot of things that were transferable.
Catch The Be All and End All at York Theatre Royal from 4th-19th May.
Photograph credited to Anthony Robling.