My friend’s kids are currently obsessed with Star Wars. I once played an hour long game of Star Wars Top Trumps with A (age 6) that I genuinely feared might never end. Yoda beat everyone else, every time. Yoda is absolutely the best. I’m pretty sure if Yoda popped up in A’s classroom and told him to jump on the tables, he’d certainly give it a go. This is the unique power of branding; stories combined with iconic characters, easily idolised. It’s also the logic behind Badger Do Best; the strongly branded learning system being deployed in the classroom of 4N, the focal point of Molly Davies’ God Bless The Child.
In a Steiner meets Big Brother endeavour, Sali Rayner (a deliciously sinister Supernanny Amanda Abbington) crafts a system of repression towards the mean, through a series of woodland characters that are designed to inspire and educate; with the classroom presided over by the somewhat eerie looking Badger Do Best, enthroned in a shrine that has displaced the teacher’s desk from the top of the room. The struggling Castlegrave Community Primary School having frantically agreed to participate in a trial of ‘Phase One’ of Sali’s educational system, Ms Newsome (Ony Uhiara) finds herself buckling under the pressure of enforcing a convoluted set of rules and tales that her students neither respond to nor enjoy.
Rebellion seems inevitable, but when it does arrive, spearheaded by the headstrong Louis (played by the excellent Bobby Smalldridge on the night I attended), things take a turn towards William Golding territory. It’s Louis’ power to tell far better stories than those in the Badger Do Best books that allows him to wield an often uncomfortable power over his classmates – but when this progresses from singing crude lyrics to spinning increasingly dark tales of death and torture, we do begin to wriggle a little in our seats. He may be claiming to be their king and encouraging them to dance on tables, all well and jolly subversive, but he’s also speaking of a violence that has had no foreshadowing in the depiction of his background and family. These children are eight, after all.
It is in this way that God Bless the Child never quite hits its mark, tonally. It goes too far and yet not far enough – Louis’ resistance to Sali’s coaxing and then spiteful chiding oscillates between the stubborn silence we would expect of children that age and then disquieting outbursts. Despite a determination to tear down the system, the children aren’t particularly presented with an alternative and at times spout a differing but equally unnatural political rhetoric for their age – presumably Davies’ own. The idea of children, and particularly those so young, conducting such a focused rejection of a confined and confusing set of arbitrary rules seems thrilling, but it doesn’t quite hold together in point of fact, despite a fantastic cast all round. I did find myself wondering several times whether setting it in a slightly older age group would have made its message more cohesive and believable – though a deal of proselytising about educational reform and individuality could stand to be lost from the text either way. It’s the sort of writing that makes you wish more had been trusted to subtlety, to the cast.
It must be said, though, and in no uncertain terms, that Chloe Lamford’s set is an utter treat. The gasps of delight were audible as the audience filed in, and several of us stayed afterwards to explore it a little more – all rendered childlike for a moment. There’s a powerful nostalgia to the classroom, which Featherstone plays with throughout the production, and, with a little tightening, Davies could work it into a truly unsettling piece.