Dead right;Primary

29th May 1998 at 01:00
Aim high and your children will prove how capable they are. That's the message from an ambitious drama project observed by maths teacher Rosalind Walford

Leigh Wolmarans and his drama club have just pulled off what most would have deemed near impossible for 8 to 11-year-olds - they've staged the first primary school production of Mort by Terry Pratchett. Not for them the innocuous songs and dances of the run-of-the-mill, end-of-term production. This was an ambitious project, with a challenging script, 100 minutes of tough dialogue, and plenty of action.

"I'm just sick and tired of people thinking primary children can't do the things they can - and the children are sick and tired of it, too," says Mr Wolmarans, Year 6 teacher at St Peter's primary school in West London.

The lead players alone - Stephen Akrong and David Duell - have had to learn 160 and 120 pages of lines respectively - a task to daunt even the most determined adult, never mind a child of 10. "KNOW YE WORDS" is the apt warning on the back of the script.

The play follows the antics of the boy Mort, who becomes Death's apprentice. In spite of a serious warning to the contrary, Mort decides to save Keli, who has been ordained to die. This impulsive action threatens monstrous repercussions on the world for years to come. Happily, Mort avoids this by re-jigging a few destinies and marrying Death's daughter.

To stage such a challenging production takes guts, and bags of energy and enthusiasm.

"The children take energy from you," says Mr Wolmarans. "As a teacher you need to pump yourself with adrenalin. If you don't have the energy, you'll get nothing, it's dead."

Leigh Wolmarans, who is South African, exudes energy in his mannerisms, his disposition and the quirky sound effects that punctuate his conversation. His enthusiasm is infectious.

His passion for drama led him to major in the subject during his educational training. While at Edgewood College, in Durban, he staged many productions and acted in front of 1,000-strong children's audiences. Starring roles included Augustus Gloop of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory fame.

Mr Wolmarans is full of praise for the monumental support from parents, colleagues, children and especially his headteacher, Helen Ridding.

"You can't do this sort of thing without an incredibly supportive head, it just wouldn't get off the ground. Helen's been brilliant," he says.

The seeds of this ambitious project were sown in September 1997, when Mr Wolmarans was looking for a script for the 25 eight to 11-year-olds in his drama club. An avid and enthusiastic reader of Pratchett, he suggested his group try a few scenes from Mort. He was confident of their ability to cope with the script, but wanted them to share his confidence. Together they spent three one-hour sessions going over scenes, trying characters and approaches.

Then decision time - did the children want to take on this toughest of challenges? They were unanimous. Dates were set for the end of March and it was full steam ahead.

Or nearly. It was necessary to get permission to perform Mort from Terry Pratchett, and the scriptwriter, Stephen Briggs. Once again the children were involved every step of the way, in this instance, in writing to request permission. To his credit, Stephen Briggs replied to every child individually and charged a pound;20 nominal fee for four productions.

Next came the sticky area of casting. This was a decision shared between Mr Wolmarans an a parent, based on sheets filled out by the children as they watched the prepared auditions. Characters were cast, pages of lines allocated and rehearsals began.

The start of spring term saw a stepping up of the project. The pace was frantic and sustained, with rehearsals daily, at lunch-times, after school, and even at weekends. Every available room in the school was crammed with Mort-related paraphernalia - costumes, books, hourglasses, turtles! Noise was heard and flashes seen from the hall at all times of the day.

Mr Wolmarans spent weekends in school, making the set. Invitations to the four performances went out to parents, governors, Westminster education authority, the press and schools. The level of commitment and teamwork was astounding.

And finally the big day dawned. Tension hung over the school in the final hectic hours. The warm-up could be heard in the darkened hall 30 minutes before curtain-up. Five minutes to go, and the audience filed in, bursting with anticipation, to be greeted noisily at the door by assorted characters from the play. Curtain up.

The performance was sensational, and improved each time. The children did everything - the acting, lights, set changes, sound and even the entry arrangements. The audience was delighted, there was something for all ages, and the performances were stunning, from the lead parts through to the behind-the-scenes helpers. Parents were impressed by the sheer scale of achievements in children so young. The younger audience sat enthralled, chuckling with delight.

And what did Leigh Wolmarans think? "I was amazed. It was phenomenal. The way they pulled together. I'm scared to work on anything else because I don't think it will be as good."

But inevitably he is hatching a plan - he hopes to organise an outdoor supper theatre involving a series of short performances based around a central theme, the sketches organised around various courses of a meal. Sounds ambitious - but if anyone can pull it off, he and his drama club can.

Rosalind Walford teaches maths and special needs pupils at St Peter's

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