Coming up the stairs at the Royal Court Theatre seemed standard enough: lots of cultural types chatting over plastic cups of wine. However as I moved closer to the play itself I had the surreal experience of having teleported into a primary school complete with corridor displays, pack folders and children’s shoes.
Taking a seat in the theatre itself was even stranger, as the set dresser had recreated a classroom right down to the low square tiled ceiling and plastic seats ranged on three sides, completely immersing the audience. This set the tone for what turned out to be a highly immersive play.
God Bless the Child by Molly Davies is the story of an under-resourced primary school piloting a new ‘child-led’ education scheme, based around a stuffed badger named Badger Do Best. The teacher testing this is faced with a scarily intelligent and rebellious child, who starts to dismantle the system. Written by a former education worker, it is an irreverent but incisive look at current trends in education which seem to favour conformity, tedium, and good behaviour over progress.
With twice as many child as adult actors, the cast is very strong. The teacher characters channel just the right amount of nervous energy and fear while Amanda Abbington delivers a highly comic and slightly chilling performance as a narcissistic education specialist. The child actors are very impressive.
God Bless the Child is undoubtedly a satire which, like the set, is at once spot-on and unnerving. Davies’s play portrays a school so desperate for funding that it sacrifices common sense; she warns against a future in which children’s self-expression is only allowed within the limits of a confining and crushingly boring routine. The final note of the play is a warning that clangs like a school bell. The absurdity of the Badger Do Best scheme and his classroom supremacy is deftly twisted into a sideways look at school politics.
At times the tension does dissipate, and the tediousness of the routine being portrayed seeps into the performance. Largely however it is a well-executed and well-observed piece of satire, with just the right blend of comedy and discomfort to keep you in thrall, and a set which will make you think you fell asleep and dreamt of your old school.
PHOTO/ Tristram Kenton