Curious views of school days

Brian Hayward checks out Fringe theatre productions for young audiences

School teachers are earnest men with elbow patches or young women practising their maternal instincts. At least, they are in Bill's New Frock, put on by the Carte Blanche Theatre Company.

Anne Fine's splendid little essay on gender equality simply dresses a boy as a girl and sends him to school for a day. Even before the well-meaning teachers can get to work on "her", he is escorted across the road by an old lady, and wolf-whistled by a youth.

Gender equality is not a problem for the educationists in the farce Teacher's Playground (performed by the Chelsea Players). Their enemy is the headmaster, a foul-mouthed, devious bully and a Scotsman. Staff meetings tend to be brief and bloody.

Nor are the battles for the higher moral ground. The teachers are, as he explains in lip-smacking detail to the school, variously adulterous, unqualified, alcoholic or Australian.

When he successfully blackmails the Inspectorate with accusations of paedophilia, the teachers decide that mind games are their last resort.

Maybe mental exhaustion has set in, but all they can scheme is to make him hear voices, like Joan of Arc, see a large white rabbit, like Jimmy Stewart, and mistake his wife for her hat, like Oliver Sachs. In the end, they just ignore him. That usually works.

Not working are the two overgrown schoolboys sitting on a wall in comedian James Campbell's Cutlery Wars (by Fat Cat Productions). They are pushing 30 and still in Year 6, because in the schools of the future you move up only when you pass the tests. This is a half serious idea and a comic gold mine, but the writer surprises us all by writing a wistful threnody on the loss of childhood.

One of the pair is impatient of short trousers and shaved legs, and anxious to join the consumerist society. The other bitterly contests his pal's career aspirations and prefers to make up jokes, play with words and compete with his friend in his cutlery game to pass the time while they watch their classmates play football. (They are too big to join in.) More seriously, he wonders whether Humpty Dumpty was an egg. Nowhere does it say so; it may only be an artist's impression. He thinks he must have been a child, because - and he says this with conviction - when a child is broken he cannot be put back together.

When his friend gets the answers right and leaves for the world of mortgages and long trousers, he is left alone and defiantly plays his childish warring cutlery game once more, now with only the world to oppose.

"In each of us there is hidden a child ... It does not matter whether the audience is young or old. A child remains a child." So say Nicole and Martin, who leave their Swiss mountain every summer to pitch their tent on the village greens of Europe, this month in George Square Gardens. They tell folk stories and traditional tales, carefully preserving the originals to keep their symbolic content.

Their credo is simple: evoke the image with the fewest possible words and objects. It is poor theatre - pretty well everything comes out of one box - but opulent in imagination and wonderful spectacle. As performers, they are irresistible. They make all kinds of music and, with their strength and agility, they seem capable of anything as they fuse talent, discipline and art, and then throw in a couple of extra back somersaults.

For actual child performers, I went to see the seniors of Gresham's Preparatory, marking the school's 12th consecutive year on the Fringe.

Now that state schools are more or less priced out by high and rising costs, Victoria Harvey-Seldon, Gresham's head of English and drama and director of this year's production of Eclipse, explains why she remains grateful for the generosity of the school's governors. "The truth is that this is a phenomenal opportunity for the children.

"They have to learn that theatre isn't simply a matter of saying your lines under bright lights and getting applause. All the work of selling the tickets, marketing the show, getting the stage ready, clearing the theatre I that's all part of it as well, and they have had to learn it.

"We are here for a week, perform every day and see 10 shows. It really is an unequalled experience."

Eclipse, written for the National Theatre's Connections festival by the poet Simon Armitage, is about a group of children taken to Cornwall in 1995 to watch the total eclipse of the sun. The play handles its magical ideas better than its action, so it was as well that the telling quality of this production was the way the Gresham house style, discipline and sensitivity evoked the enchantment.'Bill's New Frock', for 5-plus, until August 28'Teacher's Playground', August 7-13'Cutlery Wars', for 7-plus, until Aug 27Nicole and Martin, three shows for 7-plus, until August 28'Eclipse', August 6-12

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