God Bless the Child

Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs.

It’s hard to know which is the biggest star of God Bless The Child. Designer Chloe Lamford whose primary schoolroom is an inspired replica down to the strip lighting, children’s wall drawings and dangly decorations; Vicky Featherstone’s rumbling, threatening production; the eight-year-olds who make up Class 4N. Or the adult cast.

Maybe it’s none of these but writer Molly Davies, whose vivid imagination and years of working in schools has now produced this withering part-Lord of the Flies, part-Wind in the Willows critique on our current education system.

Davies doesn’t let us off lightly. That’s to say, it’s a play that constantly wrong-foots us. It’s equally hard to detect who exactly is the villain – or villains – of the piece, who the good guys. Her `anti-hero’ Louis (it’s actually written for a girl, Louie) would crack the patience of a saint. Yet he/she is set up as a quasi-heroic challenge to a system new minted by a dashing educational guru, Sali (spelt with `i’ to make her different) who believes in the unassailable benefits of undiluted positive encouragement to children through the medium of an animal character, Badger Do Best.

Enter a head with limited resources eager to adopt Sali’s new pilot system, a successful assessment of which will lead to a new building extension and a class teacher uncertain how to make Sali’s strict `behavioural’ rules work when Louis/Louie begins to cut up rough. And you have all the ingredients for a nightmare.

A play that asks big questions, Davies’ critique covers a vast swathe of current ideas about teaching techniques and what teaching is for. As Sali eloquently puts it, `attainment…building a world-class school system…is a red herring…Behaviour is the key.’

Behind Sali’s new plan, the head’s frenzied efforts, the classroom teachers and their attempts to keep class discipline, Davies implies, stands government. And control. We educate children to control them. And control society.

It’s a fascinating ride, beautifully played by the adults – Amanda Abbington’s shiningly self-confident Sali (hiss), Nikki Amuka Bird and Ony Uhiara as the struggling head and classroom teacher and Julie Hesmondhalgh’s loveable old-fashioned classroom assistant, Mrs Bradley. And the kids? Scary!.

First published on Reviewsgate website, Nov 2014