We went over to Heathside School in Weybridge this evening to see their school play. It's been directed by former Drama St Mary's student Danielle - who only two years after graduating is acting head of Drama there - and was created using the methods we explored when putting together the site specific quest play The Shrinking Land of Kalku for Chiswick Park in 2009.
Many schools see the annual play as a promotional opportunity. A big musical that entertains the parents, gets some photos in the local press and brings a large section of the school's community together. Danielle's work facilitating a fantasy written by the students and weaved into the landscape of the school goes one stage further in allowing them to re imagine the function of different spaces and produce an escapist metaphor that allows the cast to express safely some of their hopes, fears and concerns for the future. There were over 300 in the cast.
As in so many of these stories - Alice in Wonderland, His Dark Materials, The Wizard of Oz - a teenage girl took the role of the protagonist and we followed her as she tackled and resolved a series of tasks and problems that strange and fabulous characters presented her with. Each encounter a step on the way towards developing knowledge, insight and maturity.
The work is particularly poignant at Heathside because it's the school Milly Dowler attended and where her Mum taught maths for a number of years. The last few weeks, with the allegations of phone tapping coming hot on the heels of Levi Belfield's trial and conviction, have brought back some painful reminders of Milly's disappearance and murder, which have had to be sensitively contextualised by the staff here.
Whilst the play itself didn't deal directly with those events - it was almost impossible not to acknowledge the tribute it played. Particularly in the scene set in Milly's garden where the protagonist, looked into a mirror and asked the reflection what she hoped for from the future. At the end of the conversation the reflection was invited to accompany us. She sadly explained that she'd have to stay where she was, but asked that we carry her dreams with us. Once again the girl vowed not to leave the reflection and promised to stay looking in the mirror, frozen for ever in the moment. Once again the reflection shook her head and told the girl politely but firmly that the time had now come to let go. The cast released red balloons and we were led to the next scene.
The value of drama and ritual in creating a space where we can poetically confront the dark, acknowledge our terror and yet still galvanise the strength needed to carry on living can, with brave teaching, work as well in a secondary school as in any of the world's great playhouses.