God Bless the Child

Theatre, West End
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 (© Manuel Harlan)
© Manuel HarlanAmanda Abbington and Nancy Allsop
 (© Manuel Harlan)
© Manuel HarlanAmanda Abbington
 (© Manuel Harlan)
© Manuel Harlan
 (© Manuel Harlan)
© Manuel Harlan
 (© Manuel Harlan)
© Manuel Harlan
 (© Manuel Harlan)
© Manuel Harlan
 (© Manuel Harlan)
© Manuel Harlan
 (© Manuel Harlan)
© Manuel Harlan

Royal Court boss Vicky Featherstone’s evident fascination with the creative potential of the under-tens – last year she actually put a group in charge of her theatre for a week – reaches something of an apex with this sweetly cutting satire about Coalition educational reform, in which the bulk of the cast are aged eight.

I really can’t imagine what sort of coaching, wrangling or devilry Featherstone – who directs – employed to coax such uniformly fine performances out of her young charges. It’s certainly something to do with part-time teacher Molly Davies’s excellent, sympathetic script, which never asks unrealistic emotional or linguistic demands of the kids (though she can’t resist the odd amusing one-liner – ‘oh God, I’m so stressed’, sighs a little girl at one point). But whatever the case, they’re bloody good, adorable but implacable little beings who stage an eccentric coup against a sinister ‘child-led learning’ scheme.

That scheme is Badger Do Best, an all-encompassing, 360-degrees package of picture books, classroom props and teaching methods based around the antics of the eponymous mammal, who teaches his woodland friends that doing your best is more important than winning. The rigorous system, devised by palpably self-interested children’s telly star Sali Rayner (Amanda Abbington), aims to put children in charge of the classroom – but only after rigorously sculpting their morals and personalities.

Unfortunately for Sali, she hadn’t reckoned on pre-tween rebel Louis (Bobby Smalldridge, though played by Nancy Allsop as Louie on alternate nights). He’s an ordinary but creative young man who refuses to be confined by the Badger programme’s emotional straitjacket, and in doing so jeopardises the experimental scheme’s funding future.

The kids steal the show with their mix of sweetness and disconcerting child logic, but I should say the adults are also pretty good – in particular Nikki Amuka-Bird as the school’s passive-aggressive head, while Chloe Lamford’s naturalistic classroom set is note perfect.

I’m neither a primary school parent nor a teacher, so it’s not totally clear to me whether Davies’s targets go beyond the current government and on to longer-term trends in teaching. But I’m acquainted enough with Govian reforms and the Coalition’s chilling obsession with the morality of the poor to know that the playwright lands several body blows in this eccentric, incisive satire.

By: Andrzej Lukowski


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