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 The Theatreguide.London Review



Little Platoons
Bush Theatre   January-February 2011

Steve Waters' new drama is an intelligent and engrossing problem play, a look at a serious contemporary issue in specific human terms that keep it always immediate and real.

He doesn't reach any conclusions or offer any solutions, but by reminding us that the story is a lot more complicated than we might like to believe, he leaves us unable to return comfortably to any preconceptions or prejudices we came in with.

In a decaying part of London - the Bush's own neighbourhood, actually - a group of parents concerned about the state of the local school set out to establish their own Free School (an alternative available under recent legislation, most often used to create religious schools).

As the project progresses and they have to define what they're doing, for government approval and for their own organisation, things they'd rather not face have to be faced.

The kinds of small compromises of their vision that have to be made to get approval and funding are bothersome but fairly easily skirted. The fact that their unspoken but blatantly obvious real agenda is to get their own kids out of the state school does have eventually to be said out loud, especially when they realise they'll have to fudge their proposed admission standards to do it, so the implicit racism or at least class-ism of these (of course) mainly white, educated, middle-class figures is exposed.

And the realisation that any funding they get and any superior or motivated students they cherry pick will just worsen things in the local school does call the purity of their vision into question.

But it is not Waters' purpose to satirise or attack these people as phoney liberals or hypocrites. They are facing a real problem - the local school is a horror - and it is admirable of them to want to do something about it.

But Waters makes us - and some of them - see that their solution is not an easy answer and perhaps there are none. The play doesn't reject the Free School project because it is imperfect and impure; it just makes us recognise that it is imperfect and impure, as might be any alternative solution.

Waters isn't a defeatist, but he is a realist, and his play wants to block both blind faith in some easy answer and the cynical response that just because there is no perfect answer we should stop trying.

Waters and his director Nathan Curry keep all this socio-political theorising grounded in reality by peopling the play with recognisable and sympathetic characters, sincere but flawed.

Two couples are fleshed out by being given relationship problems only tangentially related to the school project, and the one non-white member of the group gradually lets his feelings of being an outsider show. A handful of kids from the state school are introduced to remind us that they are all individuals and can't be pigeonholed by any simple or manipulated demographics.

Claire Price provides a strong centre to the play as a teacher and parent whose idealism and commitment are repeatedly put to the test, with strong performances by Andrew Woodall, Susannah Harker and Christopher Simpson as the rest of the group, Richard Henders as a naysayer and Joanne Froggatt as a canny government bureaucrat.

Little Platoons is being performed in repertory with John Donnelly's The Knowledge, another play about the school system.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Little Platoons - Bush 2011