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Amanda Abbington Stars in 'God Bless the Child', Royal Court Theatre

06/12/2014 20:50 GMT | Updated 04/02/2015 10:59 GMT

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Now, this is an interesting one. It took me two trips to the Royal Court to see God Bless the Child all the way through. On my first attempt, a member of the cast fell ill backstage and the play was halted just 10 minutes from the end. Second time lucky though as I saw it all the way through.

Why does it matter that it took me two attempts? Because it really brought into focus for me how an unsatisfactory ending can transform your opinion of a show.

First time around, I thought this show was wonderful. I found it exciting, thrilling and completely unexpected. But second time around, after seeing the complete show, I came out disappointed. Such a shame as this play was shaping up to be one of the most intriguing shows the Royal Court has put on this year.

On the surface, God Bless the Child is a satire on our education system and the hoops we make our teachers, and our children, jump through. Only it's so much more than this as it's also an examination of where power truly resides in a classroom.

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And intriguingly, this is not a straight-forward comedy-drama as the production, with stunning direction from Vicky Featherstone, is shot through with a dark, sinister atmosphere that, at times, makes you feel as if you're immersed in a psychological thriller.

The play is set in a school almost literally as well as metaphorically as Jerwood Theatre Upstairs has been transformed into a primary school classroom, complete with teacher's desk, educational art on the walls and half a dozen 8 year olds who make up Class 4N.

And the pressure is on Class 4N and their teacher Ms Newsome (the excellent Ony Uhiara) as, in an attempt to get her hands on some desperately needed funds for her school, Headmistress Ms Evitt (a perfectly pitched performance from Nikki Amuka-Bird) has put forward this class to participate in a new government education pilot scheme, Badger Do Best.

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Only this Badger Do Best scheme is, at times, ridiculous with constant daily affirmations and songs, and the use of a giant cuddly Badger as judge and jury in conflict resolution when the kids bicker and fight. It's ridiculous, yes, but it resonates because this is too close for comfort. Even the teachers know the scheme is silly but the need to appear to succeed is all that matters.

The play is written by Molly Davies, who also works as a part-time teacher, and all her wry observations on bureaucratic wrangling and constant generation of new programmes in education have been brought to bear in a sharp script that looks at a scheme where behaviour modification is more important than academic success.

However smooth progress to funding is scuppered with the rise of Louie, one of the eight year olds in the class. Louie (performed on the nights I visited by the terrifyingly brilliant Nancy Allsop) is a devious and cunning child who is obsessed with control and power.

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Louie wilfully manipulates the other children in her plan to undermine the authority of the teachers, unravelling their plans for success. There is a sense of the Abigails from The Crucible in her as she gets the children bowing and chanting at the click of her fingers.

The teachers are defeated by this Machiavellian spirit in their class as the rules of the Badger Do Best scheme prevent them from any more orthodox discipline and censure. Instead Sali Rayner (a deliciously icy cool performance from Amanda Abbington), the architect of the scheme, is drafted in to tackle Louie head on.

And what unravels from here is an intriguing power struggle between the young Louie who is determined to keep control in her hands, and Sali who is adamant that her ambitions will not be thwarted by this child.

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So, does Louie win? Does the school get its funding? What is Louie's final coup de grace? I was, almost literally, on the edge of my seat, desperate to see the climax of the play when it was cut short.

I was on tenterhooks for a week, wondering how on earth this play finished. But when I saw it all the way through the ending made no sense at all. It was so random, so disconnected to what went before. Characters started behaving, well, out of character, and Louie's final act was a bit of a damp squib.

There was so much I liked about this show. It would have been easier to do a straightforward satirical comedy-drama on our education system but the subversive, sinister spirit of Louie and her methods lifted this show into another place. Theatre should always take risks and I loved the risks here, but overall it was let down with a disappointing conclusion.

Royal Court Theatre, London to December 20, 2014

Image Credits:

1. The Cast of God Bless the Child at the Royal Court Theatre. Credit Manuel Harlan.

2. Amanda Abbington and Nancy Allsop in God Bless the Child at the Royal Court Theatre. Credit Manuel Harlan.

3. The Cast of God Bless the Child at the Royal Court Theatre. Credit Manuel Harlan.

4. The Cast of God Bless the Child at the Royal Court Theatre. Credit Manuel Harlan.

5. Nancy Allsop and Lahaina Asumang in God Bless the Child at the Royal Court Theatre. Credit Manuel Harlan.