POST- MODERNISM IN CHILDREN’S THEATRE?
Way back when, I wrote MOTHER GOOSE'S GOLDEN CHRISTMAS for the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch panto slot. It still gets performed occasionally. The story involves Mother Goose and her nursery rhyme children – Little Bo Peep, Little Jack Horner, Little Miss Muffet, Little Tommy Tucker and Little Polly Flinders. They resent their ‘little’ status and are each given their own ‘big moment’ in a new story created for them by Mother Goose.
Revisiting nursery rhymes and fairy tales is very much a part of children’s theatre (and Sondheim did it for grown-ups in INTO THE WOODS). Tweaking or twisting the original with a witty contemporary slant is fun for the writers, the actors and, hopefully, the audience. In the delightful WHO’S AFRAID OF THE BIG, BAD BOOK?, adapted and directed from Lauren Child’s book by Jonathan Lloyd at the Soho Theatre a couple of years ago, young Herb finds himself trapped inside his own book of fairy tales. Fine, except that naughty Herb has earlier defaced his book, affecting the stories. He has even cut Prince Charming out of his page, leaving Cinderella lonely. Now Herb gets involved in the adventures and has to put things right. Recently I saw another example, at the Central School of Speech and Drama. Student Daniel Wood (no relation!) adapted and directed, for his Showcase, the story THE THREE LITTLE WOLVES AND THE BIG, BAD PIG by Eugene Trivizas, an amusing role reversal version of the classic tale – wimpish wolves, bombastic pig – much appreciated, I may say, by an all-adult audience! And I see that Freehand are touring LITTLE RED……YOU KNOW WHO!, advertised as ‘a take on the traditional story’.
So what? I hear you cry……old wine in new bottles, new versions for new generations. Look at Roald Dahl’s hilarious rhyming version of LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD which ends with our heroine whipping out a pistol from her knickers and shooting the wolf! Yes, indeed, children’s theatre, and indeed children’s literature, would be the poorer without such post-modern fun.
But the other day I was storytelling in a primary school and the Head Teacher surprised me by saying that many children enter the school with absolutely no knowledge whatsoever of nursery rhymes or fairy tales. I thought maybe she was referring to the children of newly-arrived immigrants or to children from non-British cultures. But no. She said that many children from all backgrounds had never had a story read to them at bedtime or any other time, let alone been taught nursery rhymes on their parent’s knee. Modern life has no time for such activity, it seems. So now, said the Head, her teachers have to find time in the classroom to remedy the situation. Much of the national curriculum relies on the fact that children already have a common bank of stored-up knowledge of traditional rhymes and tales, but many don’t.
This set me thinking. Presumably it means that some children come to see a play which is ‘a take’ on a traditional tale without ever having experienced the original. They cannot compare the two. They cannot enjoy the inventiveness of the alternative version. Does this matter? Is the child’s enjoyment necessarily dependent upon a knowledge of the original? I certainly have no wish to curtail the imagination of writers. It would be foolish to advocate only ‘straight’ stage versions of the classic rhymes and tales. But maybe we all need to be aware of the fact that not all our audience will come sharing any prior knowledge or preconceptions of the subject matter. Perhaps we need to make doubly sure that our adaptations have a strong, clear and entertaining through-line that is not too reliant on tongue-in-cheek or ‘knowing’ references and can be appreciated in its own right in the theatre by those for whom the original source material is – literally – a closed book.
Incidentally, the afore-mentioned Jonathan Lloyd recently took over as artistic director of Wimbledon’s Polka Theatre, one of our flagship children’s theatre companies. He seems to have lots of bright ideas, including the encouragement of co-production partners for in-house and for touring. Polka will soon celebrate its 30th birthday. Long may it flourish.
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