Some blazing acting is not quite enough to save this rather underwhelming analysis of Pupil Referral Units and the flaws in the British educational system. Maggie Kelly reviews E8:

E8 is a show that hits both extremes. At its best, I witness some firecracking acting and insightful commentary about the lives of disadvantaged schoolkids. At its worst, it’s clunky, slow and lacking emotional nuance. And in this performance, the lows trump the highs.

E8 Pleasance Dome
Alice Vilanculo & Harry McMullen (image courtesy of Sophia Burnell)

Bailey (an exceptional Alice Vilanculo) and Ryan (Harry McMullen) are two students with behavioural difficulties. They are kids who have fallen through the cracks, kids the system hasn’t been able to catch and who, consequently, have nowhere safe to go after lessons end. As such, Alternative Provision School teachers Polly (Tina Chiang) and Mo (Parys Jordan) stay behind after work so the kids have somewhere to chill where they feel comfortable.

E8 Pleasance Dome
Tina Chiang & Parys Jordon (image courtesy of Sophia Burnell)

While an incredibly important piece, and with some real educational value, I find the drama in E8 is lacking. An affair between Polly and Mo feels unlikely considering the strong platonic energy between the two, and many of their conversations feel constructed to educate the audience about the themes of the piece rather than to explore each character. What seems like the peak of E8, where Bailey climbs on to the top of the wardrobe after naked selfies of her are shown around school, ends up not being all that dramatic. And when she comes down, the entire selfie situation is forgotten.

E8 Pleasance Dome
Alice Vilanculo (image courtesy of Sophia Burnell)

Bullying is touched upon but not developed. The care system is touched upon but also not developed. The piece feels like we stop after Act 1 – an interesting setup and portrait of a certain facet of the educational system, but without any specific narrative to drive through to a place where we can actively empathise with these characters rather than just watching them.

This isn’t to say there aren’t positives – Jordan and Vilanculo are cracking, and the show gains energy when we hit the conversations between Bailey and Ryan. Here the language lands and we see all their tough vulnerability, their fear in the face of a situation more powerful than they are and their attempt at childish adulting.

Parys Jordon & Tina Chiang (image courtesy of Sophia Burnell)

E8 is show with a genuine heart and good intentions. But with the believability missing and a rather wobbly dramatic arc, it felt more like I was sitting in a lecture than watching a play.

★★☆☆☆

E8 is now playing at Pleasance Dome until 25 August 2019. For more information or to buy tickets, please visit the festival website.