Two Christmases ago I played a monkey in The Emperor and the Nightingale at the Watermill Theatre. Actually, I’d auditioned for the role of “Clockmaker and other characters” – the monkey was perhaps vaguely mentioned. Only when I got the script did I realise that the Clockmaker had four measly lines, whereas the bastard monkey was in every other scene, not saying anything, but subject to chilling stage directions like “the monkey runs into the auditorium and causes havoc among the audience”. Panicking, I prepared for the role by watching Monkey Business on TV (honestly I did). I managed to perfect that thing monkeys do where they bang their hands on their heads, but the show turned out to be a superior, serious sort of children’s show that teaches you things about relationships, doesn’t have any fart jokes, and, mercifully, uses tasteful puppets to represent monkeys. Friends who predicted that I’d have to appear nude wearing a little red waistcoat and a fez were disappointed.
I’ve never been in a panto, although secretly I’d like to be. I’ve been half of a singing donkey (front half, thanks very much) in an IOU show, but that’s as close as I ever got. Our friend and erstwhile Stan colleague Ray (Gavin) Newe appeared in Mother Goose at the Dukes Playhouse, Lancaster, not long after we’d left college. Seeing him in his goose costume, his mother was moved to remark “you look like you’ve got cancer of the legs”. To add insult to insult, mates also sat in the audience and got in the pantomime mood by shouting “It’s beneath you!” at him. (Gavin has survived this ordeal and now appears on television, wearing normal clothes.)
A Christmas show seems like a lovely idea when it’s offered to you. Spending the festive season creating magic and mystery for all those shining little faces. The reality is usually having to perform physical theatre at 9.30 in the morning, in the freezing cold, with a banging headache because you went out drinking after work yesterday (which meant being in the pub at 4 o’clock), while the younger actors are throwing up in the wings.
A friend of mine, a diminutive jazz pianist called Dan, landed what he thought would be a cushy job at a posh kids’ Christmas holiday camp in Lapland, the type that has sleigh rides and real reindeer. By night, he played cocktail jazz to parents. By day, unfortunately, he was hopping about in a log cabin in the middle of a snowy field dressed as an elf. It was so cold that a female elf had to be air-lifted to hospital with hypothermia, and Father Christmas was a bad-tempered misanthrope who never stopped talking about the war.
So why do it? Theatre for children has taught me some useful lessons about theatre-making: clarity and pace in story-telling, economy and commitment in acting among them. Children are frank, sometimes harsh audiences who aren’t afraid of letting you know what they think of your work. The kids who came to the Watermill monkey show were incredibly well-behaved, although there was a good moment one day, when, as the villain, Mark had maxed out on evil laughing and cloak swishing as he exited to poison the hero, and a tiny voice broke the silence with “bastard!” Doing Great Expectations at the Pleasance in north London was more eventful. I couldn’t hear myself play the violin for the shouting and crisp packet rustling, and when Pip kissed Estella there were mass throwing up noises from the auditorium, followed by ecstatic cheers when she slapped his face in return. A group of young people with learning difficulties came to see The Silver Sword at Nottingham Playhouse, and vocalised their responses throughout what is, in fact, quite a traumatic war-time tale. Rather than being distracting, this connection with our audience produced a really intense, focused performance, the best of the whole run.
Watching how kids respond to theatre is fascinating. We were devising a Stan show at the MAC some years ago, and I recall sitting in the café as a steady stream of traumatised 5-year-olds were lead out of the theatre’s production of Hansel and Gretel in tears. The remaining couple of hundred kids were in there having a whale of a time, but as far as these unhappy little people were concerned, they’d been locked in a dark room with a witch who eats children. It made me think about that curious point in a child’s development when, having only just grasped the basics of time, space and personal identity, they’re asked to deal with fiction. My friend Louise told me about her little boy Harry’s terror on seeing IOU Theatre’s 40-foot long, human-faced inflatable red leach lumbering towards him in a street in Halifax. When Louise tried to comfort him by saying “It’s alright darling, it’s not real…” Harry looked at her as though she’d gone mad. What the hell are you talking about? It’s right in front of me and it’s coming this way!
Recalling this incident – when, for Harry, fiction and reality were not yet clearly defined terms – reminded me of the philosophical idea of paradox that refers to the way in which humans learn to perceive visual art. The theory explains how we can look at a painting and see the two-dimensional picture surface at the same time as the three-dimensional depicted scene. You can be immersed in the imagined landscape of, say, Monet’s water lilies whilst simultaneously aware that you’re standing in a gallery looking at a picture. This paradox is stretched still further in the theatre, where we are possibly even more aware of ourselves as part of an audience, watching a pretend scene represented with cardboard sets, where fictional time conflicts directly with that of our own lives, and yet the characters and events of the story are right there in front of our eyes. So even while I know there must be a trap door in the stage, that wizard really did just disappear in a puff of smoke. The thrill of engaging with this paradox, encountering a place where the world we know meets the imagination of the artist, is a key factor in our enjoyment of art. And, given that this paradox is amplified in the theatre, perhaps that’s why performance is my medium of choice. (Oh no it isn’t! Oh yes it is!)
I think there’s some excellent work happening in the domain of young people’s theatre – a fearlessness in harnessing visual images, music, poetry, fantasy and hard emotion in the service of the story, borrowing freely from other cultures and even experimental practice. Stan has yet to make a touring show for young people, but given the number of dads now in the company, maybe now is the time.