Review of Little Platoons
This play by Steve Waters is another play I wanted to see while in London and sadly didn’t get to. It premiered at the Bush Theatre, a tiny 34-seat space that premieres some of the UK’s top playwrights, as well as supporting new material.
Little Platoons is, above all, about the English school system. It’s almost impossible to explain the way schools work over there briefly, and not all of it is important, so here are the basics*:
-In England, public schools and private schools are the opposite of what they are in America, e.g. an English private school is one that is free and open to the public, and a public school is paid for and the students often board at their place of academia.
-At the age of eleven, students take an exam that will determine whether they will attend grammar school. The internet defines English grammar schools as “one of the remaining fully selective state-funded schools.” The school a child gets into is important- not necessarily a status symbol, but it does mean that if a child is unhappy in the grammar into which s/he was accepted, there are a lot of hoops to jump through to go to a new school.
-Another option for children is an independent school, which is just what it sounds like. Like America’s charter schools, these institutions do not have to follow the National Curriculum, and teachers do not need to have official teaching qualifications.
In the play, Rachel, a school administrator, is trying to get her eleven year old son Sam into grammar school. She herself teaches at an institution that she claims is “a miracle,” but her ex-husband Martin argues that Sam will be excluded there due to being white and middle-class, as most of Rachel’s students are from different countries. Rachel and Martin are recently separated, and Martin proposes that Sam come with him and his girlfriend to the small town of Bichester and attend the local grammar there. Initially, Rachel resists the idea, but when it becomes plain that there are no other options for her son, she gives in.
This incident is the catalyst for Rachel approaching a group of strangers who have been posting flyers around London about a new “free” school in Shepherd’s Bush (an area of London), parent-run, open to all. She sees it as an opportunity for Sam, but her conversation with the school’s creators, Nick, Lara, and Pav, doesn’t go as planned. When they find out Rachel is an educator, they quickly become defensive and she returns the gesture, until finally she breaks down in tears and tells them that she is desperate for a place to send her son. They ask her why she can’t take him at her own school, and when she grudgingly lists her school’s shortcomings, they ask her on a whim to be their head teacher.
Though Rachel does not say yes to this offer right away, the new school trio take her “maybe” as such, running off to get their school approved. This in itself is a large and arduous process, and is personified in Little Platoons by a young professional named Polly. Polly is the play’s version of The Man, despite being young and pretty, and though she understands how hard the new school group is working, she refuses to bend the rules for them.
The main issue that the group finds is that however adamant they are about being like Rachel’s old school, they can’t really help it. Once their school is approved, their music-centered curriculum proves surprisingly popular: they can accept a hundred students and get eight hundred applications. In order to be fair, they have to fall into the trap of usual grammar school selectivity, choosing a fraction of the applicants and rejecting all the others. And the creation of the school is not the only stress- Rachel and her new collaborators also deal with relationship and family problems, racial issues, and trying to stay true to themselves throughout all of it.
The thing I most enjoyed about reading this play was the way it was written. The dialogue is extremely realistic: “[Youth] is such a subjective thing, isn’t it? Yes, yes you are, yes you really are, I am the horse’s mouth. Sit, sit down, sit down. As I say, I have the free school, er, brief, and wow- we are so delighted, excited, that so many of you, an all over the country, too, so many fabulous applications, and you guys are way ahead of the game, I mean terrifically well done, really impressive good stuff. Okay.” Each person has their own way of speaking, and they’re all very, very British. Even having lived there for a short time, there were some references that I didn’t understand, and I feel that the script might alienate unfamiliar readers with mentions of Primark, TK Maxx, Tesco, The X Factor, A-levels, and GCSEs.
Occasionally while reading this, I felt that the arguments got too long. There are also four teenagers from Rachel’s old school that are onstage for ten minutes, and while I appreciated hearing their style of speaking, I didn’t understand what more they brought to the play.
Little Platoons is a play I’d very much like to see. It’s well-written and interesting and it gets to the hearts of the characters, as all good plays do.
*Apologies to any British citizen who is looking at my explanations and seeing all the errors; this was the best I could do.
MARTIN: So. Here’s the situation. They can fit him in next term.
RACHEL: Oh. Great. What luck.
MARTIN: Of course, term doesn’t start til mid-September-
RACHEL: Well, that’s public schools. Work-shy masters with scholarly hobbies. Mid you, they must be itching to get back into full-time pederasty.
MARTIN: You know this, this is… below you.
RACHEL: Oh, there is no ‘below me,’ Martin. Believe me, I’ve checked. By the way, is that as stud in your ear?
NICK: One day soon, Michael, every child in this country will once again know who Miss Havisham is, how to locate Belgium on a map, and the historical impact of Bismarck.