Review: God Bless the Child, Royal Court
Here’s a critic’s tip for you: the less confidence a creative team has in a script, the more detail you’ll see crammed into a set design. It’s the first thing they teach you at Design School: the crafty art of distraction.
Chloe Lamford’s primary school classroom is meticulous. There are nature notes stapled to walls, crepe paper collages and a creased solar system. The stationary cupboard is full of junk, and outside, there’s a row of coat hooks complete with peeling name stickers. It’s so life-like that Vicky Featherstone might well be running a free school in the attic to offset coalition funding cuts. That might, at least, explain how Molly Davies’ flat-footed and predictable satire snuck into the Court’s programme. Maybe they’re all too busy marking homework, taming tantrums and courting prospective philanthropists.
God Bless The Child “imagines a mutiny of eight year olds.” Class 4N are being used as test subjects in a new government educational pilot, Badger Do Best, built on the sort of softly-softly approach that everybody hates; all “thinking toadstools” and “listening lilypads.” Davies has calibrated the initiative quite carefully, ensuring that everyone can take against it whatever their politics: the Daily Mail can insist that children should be caned disciplined, not pandered to; the Guardian, that a one-size-fits-all system inhibits free-thinking young genii and intentionally affirms the status quo.
What follows is basically ‘Les Kids.’ One pupil, Louis (alternated, interestingly, by male and female actors) takes a dislike to Badger Do Best and leads a classroom campaign of civil disobedience against her teacher Miss Newsome (Ony Uhiara, channelling Playdays). She appoints herself King Louis – they’ve been learning about Henry VIII and his defiance of Catholicism – and instructs her classmates-cum-subjects to defy “the system.”
That disarms Miss Newsome. Her pupils won’t respect her rules and her head Miss Evitt (a brilliantly saccharine Nikki Amuka Bird), desperate to secure additional funding, won’t let her deviate from them – especially with the Badger Do Best creator Sali Rayner (Amanda Abbington, with a nice line in snooty-sweet) due to visit. All the while, it’s teaching assistant Mrs Bradley (Julie Hesmondhalgh) who gets the most from the children, simply by treating them like humans – and children.
I can well believe that Davies has caught the frustrations of teachers on the ground. 4N take their arts classes dressed to tackle ebola, while the child with the worst Maths score is praised for his handwriting. Discipline, humour and creativity are practically verboten in the classroom – presumably on the direct orders of Nicky Morgan – and it’s telling that Miss Newsome isn’t a former artist, but a graphic designer. Creative thinking and the creative industries are not the same thing.
But, you see what Davies has really done, don’t you? She’s done one of them allegory thingeys. Because the schoolkids, right, they’re us. And the teachers, and the heads, and the Sali Rayners, yeah, they’re the grown-up establishment and its doctrinaire pecking order. The Badger Do Best system – well that’s the universally palatable doctrine of neoliberalism, in which everyone’s free to do as they wish as long as they don’t wish for anything other than neoliberalism or Badger Do Best. All of which makes Louis Russell Brand.
Actually, God Bless The Child offers a less nuanced version of revolution than Brand. It raises the Henry VIII caveat, about creating new systems to suit individuals and their whims, but Davies never really interrogates the benefits or robustness of the system as it exists. (Badger Do Best is a woodland straw man.) For a play advocating free-thinking and pushing against dominant norms, it’s an impeccably well-behaved piece of naturalistic drama and linear storytelling. It dawdles, yes, but otherwise, it’s a play with its shirt tucked in and its skirt below the knee. (It says a lot that Quentin Letts can happily endorse its politics.) Louis’s not really a threat. Not really. She’s an artist and a storyteller – so a bit like Davies herself…
Ultimately, though Davies’s plot was only ever going to go one of two ways: either Louis’s rebellion succeeds or it’s crushed. We’ve seen this story before and we know where it’s heading. (If not, watch If.) Only these characters aren’t distinctive enough to persuade us that this time, it might end differently. That the teachers ultimately fall in line and challenge the system with their young charges is a cheap utopian cop-out, reliant on disintegrating opposition.
The Royal Court could do better. Lots better. Oh look, there are even some fun Henry VIII facts on the wall…