I realised last night, watching My City, that while my memory has always been on the annoyingly foggy side, there is one aspect of my life I do remember very well: my former schoolteachers.
Everyone has a teacher who inspired them. I think there were several for me, but my A Level English teacher Mrs Munro stands out. If it weren’t for her, perhaps I wouldn’t be writing for a living now.
In Stephen Poliakoff’s My City, it is primary school headmistress Miss Lambert who inspired pupils Richard and Julie. Now fully grown, and negotiating the pitfalls and frustrations of adult life, they are both aware that their lives would have been infinitely poorer without their former teacher. So when Richard comes across her lying on a park bench by St Paul’s one evening, he is immediately intrigued.
Intriguing is a word that sums up this new play by Poliakoff, his first in 12 years. From this initial premise unfolds a highly evocative piece that is part comedy, part thriller, part modern fable. Complex and highly engrossing, it delves into the souls of the characters and asks, what becomes of us all? What’s the point of our achievements? Do we really ever have an impact on anyone else?
Miss Lambert is a wonderful creation, beautifully played by Tracey Ullman. Enigmatic, playful, slightly eccentric yet always outwardly self-assured, it’s no wonder her habit of wandering the streets – and empty tube lines – of London at night fascinates and frustrates her former pupil Richard. She is joined in her stubborn eccentricity by ex-colleagues Mr Minken (David Troughton) and Miss Summers (Sorcha Cusack), who become prop and character support to Miss Lambert as she tells of her wanderings, ghostly, creepy tales which evoke a side to London not many of us see. In this, the play is as much a homage to the city as a portrait of the lost souls who inhabit it, and Poliakoff paints his picture expertly.
We also get to glimpse the tales that once inspired Richard and Julie, as the teaching trio take us back to school, where Miss Lambert would regale her students with lyrical stories. This device of punctuating the present with the past creates a nostalgic, wistful atmosphere that is carried through the play.
As the two younger adults, Tom Riley and Sian Brooke ably express the bewilderment and fascination their characters have with their vodka-swilling former teachers. The change in relationship between young adult and retiree is interestingly written: where once the older trio were people to look up to, a solid, supportive, inspiring presence, now Richard and Julie come to realise their former teachers aren’t the emotionally stable, confident people they thought them to be.
It’s true, what the younger pair express often in the play, that as children we always thought our teachers were ancient, a world apart in age and therefore, somehow, ‘sorted’ in life. But as adults we know they were, and probably still are, as mixed up and confused by life as the rest of us.