Saturday, 20 December 2014

18 December Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs: 'God Bless the Child' *****

School life has been a rich vein for dramatists over the years, but almost exclusively it’s secondary schools that come under the spotlight, and often public schools at that. It is, therefore a very brave decision, even by the Royal Court’s standards, to mount a play that focuses on the lives of eight-year-olds in a bog-standard primary school and to have the confidence to employ eight-year-olds to perform this full-length drama.

Writer Molly Davies has worked as teaching assistant and has brought great authenticity to the project. She understands the mores of this age group, their preoccupations and the cadences of their speech. Anyone who has ever been inside a modern primary classroom will recognise the super reality of Chloe Lamford’s set. Having been made to line up outside, the audience are led through a cloakroom which is so perfectly re-created one can almost smell the damp trainers and into the ‘classrrom’ peopled by a group of Year 4 children preparing for the day ahead. Every detail is pitch perfect, including the panelled ceiling with its harsh strip lights. The bell goes, the teacher enters, and we’re off.

For the next hour and three quarters we ae never in doubt that we are observing the goings on in a Year 4 primary classroom. These consummate child actors (some with impressive lists of credits in their biogs, but others making their professional debut) maintain the illusion. They are word perfect, natural, and never for a moment slip out of role. They handle ensemble with aplomb, and work with props like seasoned pros.

So why has Royal Court gone to all this trouble? The answer is that behind the comedy – and there are moments of high comedy – Molly Davies asks us to consider some very uncomfortable truths about our attitudes to young children, as parents, as educators, and as politicians.  The unpleasant and unsettling conclusion is that as adults we are far more concerned about the people children might become than who they are right now. We all have a view about the kind of citizens and the kind of society we would like to see in future, and the compulsory education system is the perfect opportunity to mould and shape behaviour. There seems to be a worrying consensus that good behaviour equates to unquestioning acquiescence to authority, compliance, toeing the line. Asking awkward questions, challenging authority, being different, going out on a limb are discouraged. This society is as far from being child centred as you can get. We don’t pay close attention to what young children have to say because we don’t actually believe they have anything important or relevant to say. Children have to be told what to think and how to behave.

There was a golden age before politicians understood the connection between education and the shaping of society. No longer. The introduction of a National Curriculum has been the thin end of a rapidly expanding wedge. Not content with prescribing content and standards in the three Rs, government ministers now daily pontificate on PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education) and SEAL (Social and Emotional Aspects of Education). The latter has been rolling out to parents for some years now.

Davies posits a very plausible proposition. What if the power of story-telling (part of the very fabric of young children’s world view) were employed to modify behaviour? Cue the willowy woodland world of Badger Do Best, the creation of author, behaviour expert and Government acolyte Sali Rayner. A daily litany of stories, songs, conflict resolution role plays and accompanying classroom paraphernalia - Lilly pad mats and ‘thinking toadstools’ - is being trialled in in class 4N. Much is riding upon he success of the programme which is due to be assessed by Dept for Education Officials. A stamp of approval will see it expanded and rolled out nationally with all the financial rewards that would follow, not only for Sali Rayner but also in terms of extra funding for the cash-strapped school. And for the Government, the Holy Grail of a programme which  renders all children totally compliant thus eradicating behaviour problems and the cost of dealing with them.

Amanda Abbington as Sali Raynor oozes passive aggression from every pore, whilst Niki Amuka Bird gives a convincing portrayal of a typical contemporary head teacher vacillating between the pressures of serving her political masters and a repressed knowledge that much of what she is being asked to do is wrong.

Three characters choose to subvert the Badger Do Best programme in different ways. The down-to-Earth, no-nonsense teaching assistant Mrs Bradley, played with great warmth by Julie Hesmondhaigh , has seen it all before, knows it’s nonsense and is quite prepared to say so if asked. The class teacher Ms Newsome (Ony Uhlara) whose job it is to deliver the programme reluctantly comes to the conclusion that it is gradually destroying the already admirable ethos she has established in her class. But most dramatic of all, one of the children decides to challenge the status of Badger Do Best as the great arbiter of classroom (it is, after all just a stuffed toy) and make a bid to be the power broker

What follows has a touch of Lord of the Flies about it. The seditious pupil is played by a girl in one of the alternating teams of child actors and by a boy in the other. In the performance I saw,  the part was almost chillingly acted by Bobby Smalldridge. His one-to one interactions with the initially smug Sali Rayner and his calculating destruction of her prejudices and certainties, are beautifully done.

Although this play is not without its faults (the polemics expounded by the children in the penultimate scene do seem well beyond their years), it is a bold and unusual piece of work, and one of the most thought-provoking I have ever seen. It would be a pity if it were never heard of again. TV producers and execs take note!

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