The Theatreguide.London Review
Bless The Child
Royal Court Theatre Upstairs November-December 2014
There's a short scene in the middle of Molly Davis's play in which a schoolteacher has a nightmare of her children turning on her like a pack of wolves.
The whole play is a compendium of teacher's nightmares, from rebellious kids through complaining parents, unsupportive head, interfering government and unteachable syllabi, and its scattershot method is both its strength and its limitation.
Almost all of Davies' shotgun pellets hit their marks, generating shock or laughter in the audience, but the seemingly unlimited range of targets leaves the play with little more to say than that it's all terrible and there's nothing to be done.
A teacher of eight-year-olds has been saddled with the pilot program of a new government-sponsored curriculum, invented by a former TV presenter and built around the figure of Badger Do Best.
Badger is the hero of a string of story books preaching good behaviour and the focus, in the form of a larger-than-life doll, of mandated conflict-resolution exercises in the classroom.
He doesn't teach much spelling or maths but, as the inventor explains later in the play, voters are more interested in unthreatening young people than educated ones, and the Head Teacher can only think of the funding that will come with the program.
And then the children start rebelling.
With two casts of child actors alternating, the most rebellious kid is played by a girl on some nights and a boy on others. I saw the girl and her cohort, and young Nancy Allsop does a remarkable job, but she can't disguise the fact that the character is more a literary invention than a real child – three parts Randall McMurphy, fighting authority with preternatural inventiveness, courage and energy just for the hell of it, and two parts Richard III, megalomaniacal in her ambition and turning her followers into Village Of The Damned zombies.
One of the play's conclusions is that we should trust children more, be less afraid they will grow into monsters, and educate them in ways that bring out their individuality. But the kids in the play are scary enough that you might rush toward the clamp-them-down philosophy of Badger's inventor, were she not presented – and played convincingly by Amanda Abbington – with all the ugliness of the absolutely self-confident egotist and hypocrite.
Ony Uhiara captures the growing panic of a dedicated teacher being hampered by a curriculum she knows doesn't work and challenged by a demon child, Nikki Amuka-Bird works to retain some sympathy for the Head blinded by the prospect of money for her school, and Julie Hesmondhaigh is cast somewhat adrift as a teaching aide put in the play just to give the kids one sympathetic not-bound-by-Badger adult to warm to.
Molly Davies, a former teacher herself, is thoroughly convincing in her cataloguing of the ills of the education system and, aided by director Vicky Featherstone, is consistently telling in her satire. God Bless The Child is rueful fun, rueful because you will sense that the subject wants more than to be laughed at.
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