Children’s Theatre Round-up

Feature in Issue 14-1 | Spring 2002

Being a mother of three I quite naturally detest children’s theatre – I have sat through so much dross over the past decade… Ghastly TV presenters telling adult-oriented jokes, nasty furry puppets that have terrorised my children, appalling literary adaptations that make me wish I’d stayed at home and read the book. So it was with some trepidation that I approached the winter season of ‘family shows’ with my youngest child in tow.

Our first outing was to Theatre Alibi’s Why the Whales Came. This was a thoughtful, lyrical, sometimes melancholic but ultimately uplifting story. It offers the idea that we can all make strong, moral choices about our relationship to the external world – in the sense of both other people and the physical environment. As its theme is the emergence of self-awareness and the mirroring of the self in one’s choices, it is ideally suited for the targeted 8-13 year-olds. The company used a mix of storytelling, props made from natural objects, and strong physical performance to tell their tale well. Congratulations go to the Komedia for programming the show in the early evening – the full house proved that this is an ideal time for young theatregoers.

Next, the Xmas show at Sadler’s Wells, an adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ second Narnia story. Being a Royal Shakespeare Company blockbuster, all the stops were pulled out: we had trapdoors, carousels, billowing silk cloths and sleighs riding across the stage accompanied by prancing reindeer and dancing unicorns. The leads were all rather ‘actorly’ and the darker side of Narnia predictably glossed over – the White Witch played with all the high camp of Cruella De Vil – but it was nevertheless a good entertaining afternoon out.

Back to the Komedia for the last of our three: Tall Stories’ The Gruffalo is also based on a favourite children’s book and featured people pretending to be speaking animals – but there the comparisons end. There wasn’t a trapdoor in sight – just the simplest of sets, a group of real Christmas trees and little else. Aimed at very young children, this is a simple tale told well, with the universal appeal of all good theatre. A little mouse takes a walk in the woods, ignoring warnings of danger. She scares off predators by threatening to summon up the Gruffalo – eventually conjuring him up and taming him with her wit and presence of mind. Like Aesop’s famous ‘mouse’ fables, this tale of empowerment and self-determination has an obvious appeal to little people. The show is an absolute delight – witty, but the humour is in the clever development of the animal archetypes (the salsa-dancing snake was a particular favourite of ours) rather than inappropriate jokes. The three performers are all great – we were particularly enchanted by Hilda Gardner as the mouse. And although aimed at under 5s, this was the show that 9 year-old Francis liked best – we are still singing ‘G-G-G-Gruffalo’ loudly on bath nights.

This was a perhaps a lucky strike – three out of three good shows. Or maybe there is a quiet revolution happening in children’s theatre…

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Issue 14-1
p. 27