Still crazy for play time pangs

18th April 2003 at 01:00
MY personal theme of the past week has been rushing home to see end-of-term plays at schools that my children no longer attend. How sad can you get?

Should a parent really be taking up space in the primary school assembly hall when her youngest is 18? And even for a school governor, is it not a bit over the top to attend both the technical rehearsal and the closing night of West Side Story without so much as a niece in the chorus?

No, I stand unrepentant. Both were fabulous and set all sorts of educational hares running through my head: within seven days I saw both ends of the school performance spectrum.

It went all the way from four-year-olds just about remembering to mime sturdy digging motions while singing a song about buried treasure, to 18-year-olds doing Officer Krupke with full-on athletic choreography and appropriate dramatic sneering.

It was education in action, a living exemplar of what drama can do and why you should never, under any circumstances, enrol your child in a school which says it "doesn't do plays" because they are a distraction from the curriculum.

The other satisfying thing is that even though these were amateurs and children - who by all received wisdom, are only appreciated in performance by their parents - both shows genuinely achieved the haunting quality which stays with you afterwards.

The leads in West Side Story had a particularly memorable sweetness - well, they are the right age to convey dangerous, headlong passion, and at that school they sing like angels - but some of the 116 children in the Coldfair Green first school play had the same quality.

And, even without input from Bernstein and Sondheim, so did the songs. The theme was Suffolk treasures, Roman and Anglo-Saxon: we have Mildenhall, Hoxne and Sutton Hoo. And a playlet at the end about Seaxmund of Saxmundham celebrated "one of our the greatest legacies these ancient peoples left us, the names of our villages and towns".

Tags still haunt me: the tiny boy playing Gordon Butcher, a ploughman who found 34 pieces of Roman silver plate in 1942 and had it confiscated - and not reported to the authorities - by his farmer boss. They did it in a "this is the house that Jack built" style, all the way through to the judge in the court case and the public visiting it now in Bury Museum.

Every time it got to his part in the finding, the child elbowed forward and yelled "which GORDON found!", reducing the audience to fond hysterics. You could see it dawning on the boy that the joke was better than he had realised, and he milked it more each time.

Another played Eric Lawes, who was out with a metal detector in 1992 looking for a lost hammer at Hoxne and found 14,000 coins , gold pepperpots and bangles (played by dancing Year 2s) "but I never did find that hammer".

Class 3 did Sutton Hoo, with all the melancholy, foggy funereal majesty of that site; and the top class, aged nine, portrayed evil King Niohad, Weland the Smith and assorted Ethelwulfs, Swineherds and warriors .

Ever since my own eldest began there in 1987 I have noted how this school's plays (which, on principle, give a part to every child in the school) always hold behind the songs and glitter an understated moral structure: care for each other and for the earth, respect the past, be brave, hold fast and be faithful even through trouble.

Parents with small, optimistic children who don't yet know the hardness of the world are very vulnerable to these simple sentiments, and I cannot remember any play at that school which didn't at some point bring me close to tears. Even now, the archaeology song that linked all these playlets brought an old, familiar pricking behind the eyes, celebrating not only the showier treasures but the shards and fragments: "Pots and pans and plates and knives, Proof of other people's lives!"

And if I snivelled, that's the magic. These are small children, unconsidered by and large except by their parents and close relatives. Yet together, and individually with the punch-lines, they command a hall full of comparative strangers. They hear the laughs and sense the emotion pricked into being by the simple words and songs. The teachers stand well back, working the lights: the children dominate.

At any age, but especially for the smallest, the result can only be empowering. You prepare, you practise for weeks. Then you tell your story, and in the sound of the applause you have proof that the world has a place for you and can be made to hear your voice. It is theatre magic. It is education, education, education.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today