An Arabian night to remember

25th December 1998 at 00:00
David Newnham followed 56 stars to discover the real meaning of a primary school's seasonal celebration On the face of it - and without the careful thought such matters deserve - the whole thing's about waiting. Worse than that, it's about waiting in line.

"Now today you're sitting on the chairs. I'm not sure which chairs, but when you get in there, you're going to be very sensible about where you're sitting. "

And what are we doing now, miss? "What we're going to do now is we're going to get ourselves nicely lined up."

classroom after classroom, down the long corridor that's fragrant with floor polish and hung with sketches in coloured pencil, children are waiting. Robbers wait and market people wait. There's a waiting emperor and a waiting sultan. Even the magical bird must wait.

The audience, too. It's an important role, that of audience - especially as this is the "first full run-through". You don't get to wear a costume, of course. But you do get to wait.

One by one, in the manner of some ingenious Roman fountain, the rooms pour their contents into the hall. And here the streams divide again, the robbers and despots and the crimson bird going one way and the audience the other, finding its place between tinselled wallbars, setting itself down on the painted lines of a badminton court - settling itself down to wait.

Last of all come the nursery children, a tottering line visibly wilting in the glare of so many faces and audibly starting as a 10-year-old suddenly announces that her sister Scheherazade (so many difficult new names to learn in the big school) is to be taken away. "Scheherazade must die! Crrruel FATE. ..." The girl is little but the voice is large.

It is an important day for Year 6. Yesterday was a big day. The infants did their nativity tableau, and even though it started 15 minutes late, it was worth the wait. But today is the day of the Year 6 play, which makes it bigger than yesterday.

How big? Well, this morning there's the dress rehearsal in front of the school - tonight, the show itself, with mince pies for the parents, and real darkness outside, so the auditorium won't be flooded with light every time the long maroon curtains flutter.

But how big exactly? We can work it out. There are 56 children in Year 6. And when the head, Pat Boyer, had finished adapting a pair of tales from The Arabian Nights, it so happened that 56 performers were called for. Now, if 56 ten-year-olds remember one day for the rest of their lives, and the average ten-year-old lives to be . . .

Hang on though. Isn't that just fantasy - fantasy dressed up as mental arithmetic? While Ali Baba negotiates with the 1st and 2nd robbers, we'll ask a maths master.

Peter Hobley is juggling audio tapes and fading in Mussorgsky. For the scene with the poisoned wine, he's got Khachaturian. "And then there's Rimsky. "

Peter loves the Russians. He loves teaching maths (he's officially retired, but that doesn't stop him). And he loves the Year 6 play.

He caught the drama bug - "the lighting, the colour" - years ago, when he and Pat taught at a tough primary on the other side of town. Years after a school play, former pupils - hard men, often - would come to the school and seek him out. "Mr Hobley - have you got that photo of me in The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe?" And Mr Hobley always obliged.

"It's not the play," he says. "It's everything that's led up to it. Everybody gets a chance, whatever their talents. They have a go. I've seen children whose whole lives have been changed because they've got the part and they've proved that they can do it. It's quite magical."

He talks about talent bubbling up in rehearsals. "Suddenly it's there, and you hear a voice you've never heard before. They just blossom. I hammer them into shape, or try to. But that girl - did you see her on stage? She had a stance about her, and her head came up proudly. No one's taught her that."

He points to another. "See that boy there? He's all mouth. He won't listen to you. He needs showing where his talent is. He forgot his lines and gabbled them out. But he'll be the first to notice that he was the one who didn't get it quite right. And that will rankle with him."

He watches the children as they pose for the photographer. "It's one of the joys of life for us," he says. "If there isn't money for this sort of thing, what's the point in going on? It just becomes so humdrum. But this for them is magic, you see. It only happens once a year."

He turns up one of his beloved Russians, and suddenly all the waiting makes sense.

David Newnham visited Dog Kennel Hill primary school in the south London borough of Southwark.

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