The play's the thing

20th October 2000 at 01:00
BRITANNIA ON STAGE - 25 Plays from British History. By Geraldine McCaughrean. Dolphin pound;5.99.

Chris Culpin looks at two very different resources for teaching history

* the worthy, often earnest drive to improve the quality of teaching across the curriculum, the crackle of good drama was nearly lost. Yet the magic of stories told through drama provides a spark which illuminates what it is to be human like nothing else.

History is full of good stories and Geraldine McCaughrean is a great storyteller. Here she takes 25 stories from British history and presents them as 10 minute playlets.

The topics make no concessions to fashionable ideas from Right or Left: there are a few monarchs - Alfred, Canute, William Rufus, Richard I, Henry VIII, Elizabeth - mostly treated irreverently. There are lots of "ordinary folk", though no visibly downtrodden workers.

Some topics are familiar, but some, such as the tale of the Padstow Hobby Horse, or Chertsey in the Wars of the Roses, will be new.

The chronological span takes us from Roman tin-merchants to the trenches at Christmas 1914, so some are bound to fit into your scheme of work. Each play has a cast of about10 to characters, but this could easily be extended to full class size. They would be suitable for pupils aged about eight to 13.

McCaughrean gives simple advice on costumes, props and staging. She has splendid ideas for stagecraft: her creation of the spider mechanism in the Robert Bruce story and the smugglers' pond in "Moonrakers" will delight players and audience. Some of the plays are very funny: the rhyming pantomime version of Blondel and Richard I ends with them miming the duet from Bizet's The Pearl Fishers. Some create real pathos and emotion despite their limited scope, such as "Glencoe" and "The Suffragette Derby".

With history taking a prime role in the literary initiative in secondary schools, the appeal of the collection should extend beyond key stage 2.

The brilliance of McCaughrean's language offers plenty of gems to examine. She is good on the power of short, simple lines from a succession of speakers to give the impression of a crowd. She obviously loves what words will do, both in fun and in painting really powerful images.

Whether you find time in history, English or drama, these plays are worth talking to colleagues about.

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