On the Fringe

the demon headmaster pleasance, london n ID young vic studio, london
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The Independent Culture
IT DOESN'T take much in the way of brains to work out what The Demon Headmaster is about. We all know the type: the beak hell-bent on world domination, able to hypnotise his or her pupils in order to get results. It's hardly surprising that the drama series, based on the book by Gillian Cross, has become one of Children's BBC's biggest success stories.

At the Pleasance, the idea of creating a spin-off musical must have sounded as exciting as the drone of an overhead aircraft to an island castaway. Butunpleasant things happen if you don't get to grips with the basics. The problem with The Demon Headmaster, the musical, is that there isn't a single song that justifies its existence - incredibly, there isn't even a solo for the neo-Dickensian Head (the suitably stern-looking former teacher, Roger Parrott). Matthew White's production boasts keen central performances, a nice cardboard cut-out set and some droll moments but the show is mind-numbing. Eric Angus and Cathy Shostak contribute unspectacular rock backdrops for Iain Halstead and Paul James's would-be anthems which chase after catchiness with all the wasted enthusiasm of a dog that thinks it's been thrown a stick.

At best, songs like "The Worst Class in the World" ("We're the last resort and we can't be taught") convey the scruffy rebelliousness that unites the five members of SPLAT ("the Society for the Protection of our Lives Against Them"), while padding out the gang's creaking plots to stop the HM and his brainwashed minions. But in the main, the lame lyrics insult the young audience's intelligence. These adolescent heroes, outcast from their peer-group, aren't know-alls, but that doesn't mean they're stupid.

Id, a new project by the learning disabled theatre company, Strathcona at the Young Vic Studio, is concerned with drawing a similar distinction, though the emphasis is as much on appearance as on IQ. The piece explores the thoughtless marginalisation of those with learning difficulties. If the intent sounds worthy, the directors - Ann Cleary and Ian McCurrach - go out of their way to defeat expectation.

The action is principally set in a Victorian "human zoo"; organ music piping away in the background, the ringmaster, Frankie Roquespeare (Spencer Ababio), urges us to admire his "fabulous freaks of nature" as they perform magic tricks. The story charts the lives of one of the six "uglies", Malady the Mongolboy (Pius Hickey), and his twin brother, the handsome Beau (Sheldon Antoine), from separation to reunion.

I found it an uncomfortable but compelling two hours. The scenario is tilted sufficiently to the past for it to be a moving tribute to those for whom this kind of exploitation was often the only rescue from the workhouse. At the same time, for the non-disabled, a sense of shame is never far away, although the light-hearted scriptsweetens the guilt-trip. PC theatre fit for a post-PC age. Now there's an oddity.

Dominic Cavendish

`The Demon Headmaster', Pleasance, London, N7 (0171-609 1800) until 9 January; `id', Young Vic, London, SE1 (0171-928 6363) until 23 December

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