The Knowledge


By John Donnellysteep theatre

Directed by Jonathan Berry

At Steep Theatre, Chicago

British high school drama a mixed bag of tones

Steep Theatre love to produce British playwrights and they continue that with British playwright John Donnelly’s The Knowledge. This sprawling play is about a teacher in a small hamlet in rural England who finds herself in a underfunded and under staffed British high school. Zoe (Caroline Neff) is forced to teach a citizenship class to four unruly fifteen year-olds.  She is mentored  by an experiences teacher, Maz (Michael Salinas) and the quirky principal, Harry (Jim Poole).

We witness loads of screaming, mostly from Mickey (Clancy McCartney)- the angry teen who constantly lashes out against everyone and everything.  I quickly got tired from all that shouting from McCartney.  I was also perplexed by the extrema Cockney accents from most of the cast.  At times  Caroline Neff’s accent and her slurred words were difficult to understand while Carolyn Braver, as Karris, had such a bad accent that most all of her words were unintelligible. In the interest of clarity, best to only hint at an accent then make words muddled by strong accents, especially when the performers tend to speak too fast and garble with words.  Add the very British idioms and  British school house references and much of the play becomes hard to follow. Add Jim Poole’s so ever-the-top as the principal and The Knowledge moves from a rebellious school drama to a semi-farce. The plot finds Zoe struggling to both control her students as well as impress her mentors so she can get a permanent teaching status.

We see her fellow teacher, Maz as he attempts to bed the twenty-something teacher as well as Daniel (Jerry MacKinnon, Jr.) , one of  her students as both try to seduce the sexy young teacher. We also see Zoe exude her sexuality directly to Maz and indirectly to Daniel. All this happens between all the loud school room scenes that are highlighted by Mickey’s tantrums.

While Donnelly’s drama tries to depict the tepid attempts by the British school system to educate even the losers, it wonders of into a sexy no-man’s land with the  Zoe-Maz and Zoe-Daniel encounters. It seems that the teachers and students in this school have a predilection toward  acting on their sexual desires. But when the Harry tries to bribe Zoe into changing a report about Mickey’s conduct, the tone of the play changes into a series of cover-your-ass exchanges and actions.

I believe the play’s flaws – the extreme muddled accents, all the shouting, and the tone changes made for a tedious two hours. We never know how to take Zoe. Does she deserve out empathy or is she a shallow manipulator bent on getting her way? I’m torn bu what to think about her.

I have grave reservations about the play itself. I’d tone down the screaming (especially in the intimate Steep space) and I’d reduce the heavy accents so as to make the show’s humor and idioms more understandable.

Somewhat Recommended

Tom Williams

Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast

Date Reviewed: April 18, 2013

For more info checkout The knowledge page at

At Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn, Chicago, IL, call 866-811-4111,, Tickets $20 – $22, Thursdays, Fridays & Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 4pm (April 28 & May 5), running time is 2 hours, 25 minutes with intermission, through May 25, 2013