The day has finally arrived for the Year 11 drama students at Lancashire Academy and the GCSE practical exam day is upon  them. This is make or break day. It’s worth more marks than any other section of the course. Jim knows that it HAS to go well.

Biscuits. Biscuits. Biscuits.

Jim stood in the staff room rummaging through the rucksack. He had them. He knew he had them. He’d been in Morrison’s at 6:30 this morning. He most definitely had biscuits in this bag. There was not doubt about it – he would have to unpack the whole blooming lot onto the table.

Like a slightly crazed version of Mary Poppins he worked his way through the contents of his very own carpet bag (well… dirty old rucksack that Katie used to go hiking). Desk Lamp, extension lead, gun, juggling balls, blonde wig, heroin (icing sugar), make up bag, cocktail glasses…Ah! Biscuits. Jim realised as he looked at the contents of his bag laid out on the table that this would look more than suspicious to a passing police officer. For a drama teacher on exam day however, this was everyday stuff. He left the props that he’d brought from his own stock at home on the desk and went back to the kitchen area to sort out the refreshments. The arrival of their examiner grew ever closer.

As he walked to the kitchen end of the staff room, with the ‘classic variety pack’, he realised that there was far too much movement within what had been (in the supermarket aisle at least) a very rigid packet of biscuits. From the limp way they were sitting in his hand now, they were porbably squashed and broken biscuits. Great. He knew he should have carried them separately. So much for getting the posh ones to make a good impression. He may as well give the moderator a pile of crumbs and a straw to hoover them all up. There was no way his kids were going to pass this exam now. The biscuits were wrong.

Almost without realising, Jim started spiralling. Everything was wrong. The layout of the room, the biscuits, everything. The walls started closing in and the air seemed thin. It didn’t matter anymore that the kids had been working for eight solid weeks on devising pieces of drama to the very best of their ability. The baked goods were not up to scratch. It was going to be a disaster. He started to work on regulating his breathing. He would have to get a grip. This was going to be a very long day if a packet of biscuits caused a full blown panic attack.

He looked at the clock.

7:45 am

At least half an hour before the kids would be here, at least an hour before ‘Mrs G.Winters’ from the board would arrive.

Returning to the assembly hall with the replaced contents of Katie’s rucksack he plugged in the lamp and extension lead brought in to make sure that Mrs Winters could see her notes in the darkened room. He knew that Robert should probably be doing this stuff later when he got into school, after all, he was the one being examined on his lighting skills today, but quite frankly, it was a job that needed doing and Jim needed to keep busy. As it happens Rob would move the lamp to the other side of the desk as soon as he came through the door. He was picky like that.

 Jim checked the time again.
7:46am

It was clear that he was going to need to find something to do for the next half an hour.

Leaving the hall, he decided to go and find Alan the caretaker to remind him about all the goings on for today. Jim had been forced to move some tables out of the assembly hall first thing this morning when he arrived and out of courtesy that he should seek out the school’s resident ray of sunshine to tell him. The kids loved Alan with his dry humour and propensity to swear quietly under his breath at senior staff (something Jim was sure that he’d get caught doing one day) but he still felt a strange kind of affiliation with the old grump.

They were both unhappy with the status quo at Lancashire Academy and from the positions they held in the pecking order, neither could really do much about it. It wasn’t that Alan wasn’t quite a cheery man outside in the real world, but being the site manager for such a large school (Lancashire Academy had over 1200 kids on roll) inevitably came with a huge amount of stress. Some of that stress was caused by drama teachers who insisted on leaving random boxes of clutter all over the building at any given time, so Jim had learned over the years that you keep Alan sweet.

It didn’t take long to find the rapidly ageing caretaker who Jim spotted pushing a chair laden trolley back towards the doors of the assembly hall. The penny didn’t drop.

“Jim, can you hold that door for us?”

“Sure, no trouble Al. Which one?”

“What do you mean?”

“Which door? Where are you heading with them?”

“Into the hall”

“But the drama exam is…”

And down came the penny. Both paused briefly before the inevitable realisation came upon them. They were about to stumble upon a gargantuan problem.

What then followed in Jim’s mind was a series of haunting images in slow motion, tinted with more than a dash of  surrealism. As the blood rushed directly to the head Jim Tovey BA(Hons), PGCE (Head of Drama), the room went dark and he was alone in a spotlight. Floating chairs, desk lamps  and giant biscuits surrounded him, while a group of children dressed in black walked slowly around repeatedly whispering the word ‘Inadequate’.

Janet & Mike appeared in his vision with clipboards, slowly shaking their heads and noting down his failings. As the whispering grew to chanting, Jim found himself running helplessly towards the door where he could hear Danny crying, louder and louder and louder. “INADEQUATE!” chanted the children over and over again until Jim relented and closed his eyes.

Silence and blackout.

If it was being marked then his hallucination would have got band 3 at best.

“Jim?”

“Hmm?”

“You alright?”

“The drama exam Alan. We’ve got it today. The hall’s been double booked hasn’t it?”

Rude words were exchanged, not in the heat of battle but between two comrades who had been screwed by the common enemy of poor communication. With Megan in the office being off with her back for the past six weeks, no one had thought to sync the diaries since her departure. Jim had a drama exam due to start in 53 minutes. Alan had a first aid course to set up for. That explained the tables in the room and the imminent arrival of invading chairs.

“What time is the first aid due to start?”

“2:30 – but there’s about ten people coming up from Clitheroe Academy and a few from St Bernadette’s too- we can’t cancel it Jim. This woman from the Red Cross is driving all the way up from Telford….”

2:30 was fine. They had six practical groups to see in the exam and even with a major delay they would be finished by half one. Jim began to think that this might not be such a problem after all.

“We’ll just put the chairs and tables behind the curtains and I’ll get the kids to help me put them out at the end. How’s that? Everyone’s sorted.”

“It’s not just the chairs and tables Jimmy boy. There’s twelve resuscitation dummies sitting in reception. They just arrived by courier. Where the hell am I going to put them until two o clock?…”

And so it came to pass that the audience size for the Year 11 drama exam grew by twelve people of restricted height and movement. When Jenna (who was first to arrive as always) entered the hall she was greeted by a dozen emotionless attendees, which if she was really honest, completely freaked her out and would give her nightmares for weeks. As Mr Tovey seemed jumpy enough already, she kept her fears to herself, but had one eye on the front row throughout the morning’s proceeding.

Robert and Sadie were the next to arrive (together….strange…) and both found it hilariously funny to start doing puppet shows with the silent twelve.

“Do you reckon we’ll fail if they don’t clap?” Sadie pondered as the rest of Year 11C began to drift in.

“One more dummy in our drama class – will anyone notice?” replied Robert, who seemed for the first time in his life to be engaging in what could only be described as witty banter.

Sadie gave him a playful nudge on the arm before going to her bag to sort her costume for the performance. Those two seemed to be getting on rather well nowadays…Were they…? Not now Jim, you’ve got six shows to run.

For the first time in his seven years of teaching at the academy, every single one of his year 11’s arrived on time for their exam day. Without exception. These really were a hard working group. Possibly the best he’d ever had. They weren’t all A*’s by any stretch of the imagination, but no one could have questioned their effort. Okay, Janet had questioned their effort on many occasions, but certainly no one from the human world had doubted them. All were quickly dressed into their base black colours and group one had set themselves up ready for the imminent arrival of the examiner.

Jim glanced back up at the rapidly advancing clock. It was now 8:42am. Robert was in position at the lighting desk and had set the room with a warm and welcoming preshow state. Jenna and Lucy were ready at reception to meet and greet the examiner when she arrived. David stood dutifully by the video camera with its accompanying pile of spare tapes and batteries. Everyone was set. Everyone was ready.

As the girls ushered Mrs G Winters into the assembly hall, there was a nervous anticipation at what could be the finest moment of their theatrical careers so far. They had created these pieces, devised the stories, borne their souls, built their characters and rehearsed them till they blue in the face. They had gathered costumes, props and special effects. They had tested lighting and sound states and given up so much of their time after school for this one moment. They had performed test runs for the Year 10 group just last week and got a really good response, even though a few things had gone a bit wrong in the dress rehearsal (just as they should). These kids were damn good and they knew it. Now they just had to show that to this random stranger from the exam board.

Jenna used her very best Deputy Head Girl voice to welcome their visitor as she was shown to the table.

“Here is your table Mrs Winters. Would you like a biscuit?”

“I’m very sorry, but I have a severe allergy to anything with gluten in. Could you take them away please…?”

Jenna looked solemnly at Jim who was wincing on the other side of hall.

He was right. Everybody was going to fail.