Status anxiety

Can I turn the West London Free School into Fame Academy?

20 July 2013

9:00 AM

20 July 2013

9:00 AM

‘Another opening, another show,’ sang five-year-old Charlie on his way to school this morning — and then proceeded to belt out the entire first verse of the famous Cole Porter song. No, it’s not what you’re thinking. All four of my children are deep into rehearsals of Kiss Me Kate, this year’s ‘summer production’ at their primary school, and they’re taking it very seriously. Even more seriously than last year, if that’s possible, when they did Oklahoma!

I say Oklahoma! and Kiss Me Kate, but in fact they’re bowdlerised versions, rewritten by the headmaster. This involves sanitising some of the content — ‘I’m Just a Girl Who Can’t Say No’ became a song about being unable to resist chocolate — and adding lots of topical jokes in the style of a pantomime. The result is a bit like a Morecambe & Wise Christmas Special, but with a cast of hundreds.

During the five years I spent as a drama critic it was a general rule that if the people on stage were enjoying themselves more than the audience, the play was a stinker. There’s no doubt the children enjoy these extravaganzas — and all 240 of them are in it — but the parents and grandparents in the audience seem to enjoy them even more. Every year an amateur filmmaker makes a video of the entire affair, using multiple cameras over several nights, and the resulting three-hour ‘memento’ is a huge money-raiser for the PTA. For some stage mums, it’s not enough to sit through every single performance. They want to watch it again at home.

It’s easy to be sniffy about the summer production, but I enjoy it for several reasons. First, there’s the pleasure of seeing your own children perform. Eight-year-old Ludo, in particular, lights up in front of an audience. This year he’s been rewarded with a speaking part and has had to memorise Hamlet’s advice to the players (‘Speak the speech, I pray you…’), which the headmaster has somehow managed to shoehorn in. He’ll get a big round of applause simply for reciting it correctly, but if he makes a decent fist of it, which I’m sure he will, the reaction will be through the roof. I’m looking forward to seeing the smile on his face when that happens.

Then there’s the sheer joy of discovering that one or two of the children possess genuine talent. In a West End show, you take a basic level of talent for granted and it requires quite a lot to really stand out. But talent is a pretty rare commodity among a random collection of four-to-11-year-olds and if someone can sing or dance you really sit up and take notice.

A few years ago, I remember seeing a girl called Rahama sing ‘Feed The Birds’ in the summer production and it was like one of those YouTube moments from Britain’s Got Talent. She was a tiny little thing, but she had a voice that could fill a football stadium, not to mention perfect pitch. There was something almost miraculous about someone that good being in the school play. I introduced myself to her parents afterwards and encouraged them to apply for a place at the West London Free School, which specialises in music.

But the most satisfying thing is seeing everyone come together. We often use the word ‘community’ to describe the different groups that cohere around a primary school, but it doesn’t always feel like a ‘community’. Sometimes it’s more like a slightly awkward wedding reception. But at the summer production, the sense of community is so palpable you can almost touch it. The things you do together on these occasions — clapping along to the songs, joining in the chorus, applauding wildly at the end — create enough fellow feeling to sustain the school community for the rest of the year.

Indeed, it was partly because I saw how uplifting these occasions can be at my children’s primary that I wanted the free school to specialise in music. One of the highpoints of my involvement in the whole project was seeing our production of Oliver! this summer. It was absolutely fantastic, a showcase for everything the children, staff and parents have achieved (and Rahama, who joined the school last year, gave a great performance as Mrs -Sowerberry). Watching it with Sasha and Ludo sitting beside me, I was bursting with pride.

The best thing of all about it was that we had the Ofsted inspectors in during the rehearsals. We’re currently awaiting their verdict, but if the music isn’t rated outstanding I’ll be writing to Sir Michael Wilshaw to complain.

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Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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