For such a significant rite of passage, the first day of school has received surprisingly little attention in art and entertainment. It’s one of those life-changing experiences that many of us remember for the rest of our lives, with its mixture of excitement and trepidation. David Holman’s play has captured the essence of starting “big school” in this delightful play, which Sydney’s Company B Belvoir has staged sensitively and lovingly.
For adult actors to characterise tiny children and sustain the illusion without slipping into pantomime is a challenging ask: it is greatly to the credit of these actors and their director Neil Armfield (Company B’s artistic director) that it comes off so well. The entire cast succeed in capturing the mannerisms and facial expressions of little ones as they run their random, ego- centred, curiosity-driven but vulnerable lives. Richard Sydenham is particularly effective in the key role of Clint: he beautifully captures through posture, gait and hand movements Clint’s sookiness and fragility but also his sense of wonder and excitement. We feel for him at the threat of his mother’s having a new boyfriend just at the pivotal point of his first day at school, at his loss of the companionship of his neighbourhood best friend who is summarily switched to a new school, at his fear of the classroom bully, and his shame at wetting himself.
The job of characteristation is even tougher for the other actors, who switch repeatedly from child to adult parts. They all rise to the challenge, Andrew Gilbert as the slightly whacky little Theo and also as the understanding headmaster with his little human foibles; Arky Michael as menacing bully and also Greek immigrant dad, worried about the Asian migrants; Felicity Price as Clint’s mum and also two little girls (one of them Vietnamese); and Ursula Yorich as Cambodian orphan Lep and also a mum. And Genevieve Mooy is a delightfully saccharine sweet and ever-so-jolly grade 1 teacher as well as guardian of Lep.
The story of Clint and his classmates’ perceptions of school is further enlivened with song and dance, ably accompanied on percussion and keyboard, plus a whole series of knock-knock jokes and ditties which particularly delighted the child component of the audience. A simple but effective set gives us the paraphernalia of a busy kindy classroom as well as the solid ugliness of the brick toilet block and bubblers.
And to add to the enjoyment there are several moments of audience participation, Edna Everage style. Be warned: avoid the front row unless you want to be part of the show.
This is a production which everyone will enjoy who has taught at a school, sent children to school or been to school.