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Review - Gove-worshippers, lefties - everyone's a target here

Little Platoons is showing at the Bush Theatre, Shepherd's Bush, London, until 19 February

Newspapers, not theatres, are supposed to provide the first draft of history. But Steve Waters' often uncannily accurate new play charting the still-unfolding free schools policy can feel like watching tomorrow's news today.

Little Platoons shows what could happen when the kind of frustrated, ambitious London parents who call their children Hephzibah are allowed to set up their own state-funded school.

Toby Young, the writer who has dominated coverage of the policy in the real world and advised Mr Waters on his play, says he does not recognise himself in the character of Nick Orme, a foppish free schools promoter.

Brilliantly played by Andrew Woodall, the louche, linen-suited father-of-three is something of a middle-class caricature. "Consoles off, Crocs on," he commands his on-stage brood.

But the parallels with Mr Young - who also struggled in a comprehensive as a teenager - and the real West London Free School he is setting up, including the musical aptitude tests, are too obvious to ignore.

The same can be said for the Whitehall world the characters have to navigate. Joanne Froggatt, who plays frightfully posh civil servant Polly, is probably a lot funnier than her real-life counterparts. But the policy detail is identical.

"Look at him, smiling down on us," says Nick at one point in the play, gazing at a picture of education secretary Michael Gove. "One day soon, every child in this country will once again know how to locate Belgium on a map."

The day after Little Platoons opened, Mr Gove announced a curriculum review and lamented the omission of country names from geography lessons.

The need to explain wordy policy ideas initially hinders the drama, but the pace picks up when Rachel De Witt (Claire Price), a local comprehensive teacher, agrees to head the free school.

A bleeding-heart liberal, Rachel is a world away from the pinstriped ex-independent head appointed to lead the real West London Free School last month.

And her overnight conversion to a socially selective elitist is the one plot element that creaks slightly. But the near hysterical parental fears that fuel it ring all too true.

"They're gonna need their 10 A-stars, their 10 A-starred stars, their four A-starred A-levels," Nick says of his children. "One false move and what are you? You're nothing."

When it turns out that council estate parents feel the same, Rachel's response shocks and alienates fellow free school campaigner Parvez, superbly played by Christopher Simpson.

In the real world her solution would not be allowed. But with more than 300 applications submitted for 120 places, the real West London Free School could be about to face the same dilemma.

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