Staff and pupils at a north London primary dusted off the poetry of William Blake to provide the inspiration for a contemporary musical. Simon Tait reports
What can William Blake, the visionary artist, poet, printer and, for most of his contemporaries, irredeemable crank, who died in 1828, possibly have in common with primary-school children at the end of the 20th century?
On the face of it, not much, but the headteacher of an Islington school and three artists - a musician, a dancer and a painter - were convinced otherwise and the result has been a triumphant production at Moorfields Primary School, involving each of the 230 pupils and the staff for the whole school year.
It has been unifying in both playground and staffroom, says headteacher Pru Jarmyn. "It has had an amazing effect, particularly as the performances got closer. Children who did not normally shine found something to be inspired by in the project. Behaviour improved and as we got closer to the performance, there were practically no playground incidents. The staff - who goodness knows have enough on their plate - are bursting with ideas now that they see what can happen." The Blake project plumbed hidden depths with them too: two weeks before curtain up, one teacher shyly revealed that she played the clarinet as a hobby and asked if she could add it to the band. Her haunting tones over the percussion added much to the effect.
Blake would have been proud. Kevin White, a professional trumpet player and former head of music at Moorfields, met painter Stan Peskett socially three years ago, and the idea was born. Peskett, who had worked with children on many of his commissioned murals, had created one in Peckham on the theme of Blake's first vision, which happened in Peckham Rye "It was Blake's Songs of Innocence and (Songs of) Experience that particularly struck me," Peskett says. "I didn't want it to be a direct transfer of text, but I thought about what this poem says and it analyses what gives a constructive life, and especially the need for thinking and finding answers."
Children at all levels in the school were asked for questions to which they had to find answers, such as "Who made the River Thames?"; "How come an eagle can fly?"; "Why is my sister silly?"; "Why do you never let me play?"; "Why does (sic) my teeth fall out?" The musical they created, Little Boy Lost, Little Girl Found, with words by teacher Jenny Matthewsok, who has worked in children's theatre, and choreography by another professional artist, the dancer Maxine Braham, was made contemporary. The boy, Jack, begins his odyssey weighed down with a satchel full of his questions, which becomes lighter as he progresses, until it disappears. He meets a random selection of vices in the shape of giant puppets created by Peskett - the greedy Mr Mac, the slovenly Miss Feelgood, the lustful Miss Lippo - all of whom he analyses and then discards, and several other guides who turn out to be equally lost. Lyca, a child trapped in her own dreams, becomes his most faithful navigator and at each stage Jack is given another piece to the jigsaw puzzle of what he is looking for, and the last piece shows him that it is himself.
The show, an hour long, presents a host of sprites, a large band and a variety of pirates, knights and animals. A representation of the Children's Day Procession from Blake's day, when school children walked to St Paul's Cathedral raising money for the poor children of London, accounts for the entire school's involvement.
The music is haunting and precise, the choreography necessarily free but exact and the script uncomplicated but clear.
"It was more exhausting than any of us expected, but amazingly rewarding, " says Pru Jarmyn. "It certainly would not have been possible without the artists, who have been wonderfully patient with all of us. The school will certainly never be the same, and the staff are full of ideas of how we could follow the Blake Project up."
But cost for a follow-up might be an obstacle, even though Little Boy Lost, Little Girl Found was not expensive by most estimates. It was Pounds 6, 500, Pounds 5,000 of which came from a local charity, the Cripplegate Foundation, which fortunately happened to find the project in tune with its policy. The school itself found Pounds 1,000, and Pounds 500 came from the local authority, Islington. "We would like to see the show taken on by a children's theatre company, and we know that some representatives were here to see it," says Kevin White. "It was devised for a wider space - we tried to find a conventional theatre but failed - and to be adaptable for different casts."
Whatever its longevity, Little Boy Lost, Little Girl Found seems to have had an impact in the Moorfields neighbourhood: on the day of the first performance, an array of small posies of flowers mysteriously appeared on the grave of William and Catherine Blake next to the school.