REVIEWSREVIEWS BYTheatre ReviewsTom Williams

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

One thought on “The Knowledge

  • The Essex Dialect Authority


    I am an all around theatre person living here in Chicago and I am a fan of your blog. I find your reviews as succinct and on the nose as they can be. So, first off I want to say, well done.

    However, I felt some of your opinions in this review stepped a bit too far.
    I encourage you to read the rest of this comment before discarding it as my intention is not at all to scold you or complain but to graciously encourage you to re-think your perspective on a few things.

    Although I have no direct relationship with the cast nor the company; I am a large fan of Steep Theatre and saw this show last weekend. I greatly enjoyed the show, and I’m a bit confused about one aspect of your review.

    Mostly I took no issue with what you’ve said. I did enjoy the script and direction much more than you, but obviously that is a matter of opinion for which you are by all means entitled to have.

    The thing that rubbed me the wrong way was your comments regarding dialects. You essentially bashed the entire production’s dialects, calling them “extrema Cockney accents” even though they are attempting to do Essex, and even go as far as to say one of the younger actresses “had such a bad accent that most all of her words were unintelligible”.

    I saw this production and I can assure you, I had no such issues with any of the cast.

    Without sounding pretentious, I am rather knowledgeable about dialects. I have studied accents and dialects for years and even hold a theatre degree with a special focus in speech and dialect, the British aisles being my specialty. I have done dialect coaching for a handful of productions and acted with dialects dozens of times.

    Here’s some info about the Essex dialect:
    The Essex dialect (You called it “cockney” in your review and however the play takes place in the Tillbury Essex area) to an American can seem exaggerated and extreme.

    “You” in the sentence “Do you?” would sound more like “Do yuhh?”

    The diphthong of [ai] which is common amongst East Anglian English and other predominantly English rural dialects e.g. Right – Roigh

    The shortening of certain elongated vowel sounds from [iː] to [ɪ] e.g. Been > Bin, Seen > Sin

    L’s and G’s are dropped
    e.g Old > Owd

    Singing- Singin


    Frequently sounds are elided to allow the easy flow of speech; e.g.,
    Wonderful > Wunnerful,
    Correctly > Creckly,

    If your review had stated that it was difficult dialect to follow, that would be one thing. But you go as far as to call some of the cast “bad” after they have undoubtedly put in a lot of time and energy to attempt to master this dialect as accurately as possible. That doesn’t seem fair to me.

    Here are some examples for you to listen to if you’re interested further:

    As a dialect enthusiast, I am simply asking you to realize the fact that you do have a decent readership online, I am one of your readers, and using phrases like “bad” particularly when you are off-base on what they’re even attempting to do, defeats the purpose of what your website is supposedly all about.

    Unless I am mistaken, your bio claims that you “advise people to be extremely open-minded and just let a show into their hearts and minds.”

    I encourage you to try that with this show.

    I for one happen to think you should give The Knowledge a second chance. Especially coming from a dialect perspective, I don’t think you were on point and I graciously ask you to strike those few lines from your review.

    A humble Chicago theatre patron

    PS: If you’d like to have further discussion on the Essex dialect, let me know on this thread and I’d be happy to discuss it with you [email protected]

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