When the Penny Drops

Oran Mor, Glasgow

Mary Brennan

four stars

Miss Jean Brodie was wont to describe her ‘gels’ as the crème de la crème – no such accolades for her pupils, or indeed her fellow members of staff, from English teacher Penny. Instead, she conjures up her daily stint at a secondary school – and elsewhere, moonlighting as a private tutor – in thumbnail sketches that are more like sarcastic put-downs.

Shrewdly observed, wickedly funny, merrily disrespectful - with this kind of material, Penny could easily have a thriving mid-life career in stand-up comedy. Or maybe, like writer Catriona Duggan – she could channel her well-honed one-liners into a lunchtime hit at Oran Mor.

Penny (Jo Freer) declares herself proof against the annoying traits of colleagues and the exasperating habits of teenagers by assuming a carapace of detachment. “Don’t get involved, don’t get emotional” is her mantra as she dodges away from any show of caring for, or sharing in, the lives of other people. It does, as you might well expect, come back to bite her – but I won’t clype on what occasions Penny’s downfall or how she wins through, beyond saying that Jo Freer negotiates the cracking open of a lonely woman’s defence mechanisms with a nuanced vulnerability and embarrassment that rings true.

Meanwhile Simon Donaldson and Michele Gallagher are pulling off countless quick-changes of costume, accent and personality to bring Penny’s verbal portraits to life. Gallagher runs a brilliant gamut from stroppy schoolgirl to disgruntled teaching assistant and garrulous, man-hating single parent who corrals Penny into graphic confidences she’d rather not share. Donaldson, meanwhile, is serving up a master-class in male body language: all gung-ho activity as the alpha male PE teacher, then weedy and ingratiating as a less assertive master, and into slumped’n’sullen hoodie-wearing Daniel who has no interest in one-to-one tutoring.

Director Angela Darcy keeps everything cracking along grand style towards the (unspoken) punchline – ‘ditch detachment – get involved’.