Francis Beckett


Former Labour education Secretary Estelle Morris, often a voice of reason, got it completely wrong last night on Front Row, when she was sniffy about the new political play, Little Platoons.  We've forgotten what radical political theatre is supposed to be like, and Steve Waters' play  Little Platoons has arrived at the Bush Theatre to remind us.

First, it's bang up to date, getting to grips with the idea that most clearly sums up the new government's philosophy - free schools.

Second, it takes on the arguments. No cheating: no making the likeable characters take the view we wish the audience to adopt - in fact, the heart of the argument against free schools is expressed by one of the least likeable characters - and even he's a late convert to it.

Third, it's a play first and a statement second - far too much recent political work by major radical dramatists like David Hare and David Edgar have been statements first and plays second. There's not one character in the play who is a cardboard cutout, not one who's there because the author needed someone to say something. Every character is multi-layered, every character develops as the story progresses.

There are no simple, straightforward answers. The characters are parents, grappling with a problem that all parents face. The mother says to the fauther: "What you fear about Mandela [the local comprehensive] is that the kids are all just a little too brown for you." And he denies it indignantly, but then, on the other hand, "just how many white middle class kds are there in there? Who's going to be Sam's buddies, his peers? Realistically?"

Here’s how the idealistic comprehensive school teacher is converted to selection when it comes to free schools: “If we don’t filter these applications in some way, we’ll have a world of woe coming through that door.”

It takes on the issues, it knows there are no easy answer, but it also knows where it stands. So when, finally, it comes out and says it, there's no sense of being preached at, just relief that someone is saying the simple thing that needs to be said:

"I want Sam to muddle his way through Mandela and for us to make that work for him. I want us to get off our knees, I want to fight for what we fought for, our parents fought for, I want to defend every benefit and every year at school and every free place at uni and every bit of social housing and every park and public holiday..."