Review: Back to school in God Bless The Child, Royal Court
The Royal Court's upstairs theatre has gone back to school. The space has been transformed into a primary-age classroom complete with wall displays, little tables and chairs and book corner. It's probably the most complete transformation of a theatre space I've seen with the audience seated in plastic institutional style chairs around the very edge as if part of the classroom.
It must be quite spooky for the younger members of the cast who play the pupils and are central to the story both physically and thematically.
Molly Davies's new play is about a former children's TV presenter and author Sali Rayner (Amanda Abbington) who has devised a new system of teaching based around Badger Do Best and his woodland friends. The classroom in which the play is set is one of three around the country which is trialling the system before the government decides whether to fund phase three of its development. There is a substantial grant on offer for the school awarded the final trial stage, a grant that would enable the school to finish a much needed extension.
The problem is that the kids aren't stupid or rather one in particular - Louis (Bobby Smalldridge*). He sees through the moral manipulation of Badger Do Best and starts to make up his own stories which soon have the class doing what he wants.
There are certain theatrical treatments that belie the classroom setting but it is otherwise convincing as are the young cast who pretty much steal the show from the grown ups despite their best efforts. I particularly enjoyed Julie Hesmondhalgh as the friendly, class-favourite, teaching assistant Mrs Bradley.
In the end, despite the fun and games, the play has a harsh lesson which did feel little tacked on to the end and could have been more subtly played out. Likewise, I know that children are often cleverer than adults think but Louis' behaviour felt a little extreme and out of place in the realistic setting.
Maybe the ugly and sometimes sinister behaviour is exactly the extreme Davies intended but both in plot and performance it felt a little contrived to generate unnecessary drama. There were already many points being well made.
It is probably being picky because these things only come to a head towards the very end of what is an interesting subject tackled in a bold production.
God Bless The Child runs at the Jerwood Space upstairs until 20 Dec and is one hour and fifty minutes without an interval. Note the early start time of 7pm to accommodate the children in the cast.
* There are two young casts for the play who alternate between shows and Louis becomes Louie played by Nancy Allsop
Amanda Abbington plays Mrs Watson in Sherlock which Mr W's friend and Cock co-star Andrew Scott plays Moriarty.