LITTLE PLATOONS
Bush Theatre, London W12
Opened 24 January, 2011
**

Education has not become any less vexed a political issue since Tony Blair invoked it thrice as his main priority in the 1997 election campaign. Any discussion on the subject is almost guaranteed to generate more heat than light, and so I’m afraid it proves to be with Steve Waters’ play for the Bush’s Schools season. Last week I praised John Donnelly’s The Knowledge, with which this plays in repertoire, for avoiding the temptation to become a state-of-the-system play. Alas, that is precisely what Waters has written.
    
He takes as his jumping-off point the current government’s nascent scheme of “free schools” to be organised in and by communities and run independently of local authority diktats. Rachel, a parent and teacher in a not-quite-sink comprehensive in Shepherd’s Bush who is committed to the comprehensive ethos of opportunity and enrichment for all, becomes involved in a local free-school proposal and then agrees to become the putative new school’s head teacher. We hear arguments in the school lobby group, both as the initial application is made and then later when it seems on the verge of approval and practicalities such as acceptance/exclusion criteria must be sorted; arguments between Rachel and her ex-partner over both the individual schooling options for their 11-year-old son and the general social principles underlying such matters; arguments involving pupils from the existing school who are brought in as a kind of focus group, and a platitudinous Department for Education mini-mandarin (satsuma?) responsible for green-lighting the enterprise.
    
In fact, all we hear are arguments. Once or twice it threatens to become an actual play, but soon enough settles back into its persistent mode of thinly-dramatised argument and counter-argument. The domestic strife of Rachel, and of another couple involved in the group, constitutes a fairly perfunctory attempt to humanise or offer possible motivation for the… well, the shouting. Andrew Woodall complements his cynical head-of-department in Donnelly’s play with a verbose un-PC chairman of the free-school group here, and Joanne Froggatt morphs from the committed but confused protagonist of The Knowledge to Waters’ smiling, buzzword-spouting civil servant. But whatever one’s position on the issue, this play leaves us none the wiser, nor even better informed. It enacts our passion and our confusion: it says everything and says it faithfully, and thus says nothing.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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