Understanding a Child's Understanding
When my trousers suddenly split as I executed an energetic knee bend during the opening number of a touring revue, the Kings Lynn audience roared. As the show progressed, nothing got such a hilarious reaction. It was the biggest laugh of the night. A bit sad, that. But audiences – adult audiences – love things going wrong.
Recently I saw SISTER ACT at the Palladium. The audience enjoyed it. But they enjoyed it most when a curtain snagged on a flat and Ian Lavender, in full priest’s rig, came out of character and used all his strength to help one of the stage crew release it. I suppose human nature is tickled when cruel reality interrupts carefully crafted illusion, or when an unintended error brings the star down to size.
In panto, some artistes exploit this to considerable effect. Do audiences really believe, when the Ugly Sister’s wig falls off, making the whole cast corpse, that this is the first time it has ever happened? I suppose they do. They will remember that moment long after they have forgotten everything else about the show. They believe they have shared a special and unique complicity with the actors.
There was a similar moment in HAIRSPRAY when Michael Ball and (when I saw it) Ian Talbot shared a corpse that had evidently become part of the show because it got such a huge laugh.
Cilla Black, as Aladdin, used to bemoan her (his) cruel fate when incarcerated in the cave by Abanazar, by beating on the sealed entrance, which would open slightly, then suddenly close again, as though a stagehand had been daydreaming. It looked as though Aladdin wasn’t shut in after all. Cilla corpsed. The audience became hysterical. Again, the biggest laugh of the night. I suppose it must have happened for real one night and got such a huge reaction that it was decided to keep it in every performance. Fair enough.
But we can’t get away with such things in children’s theatre, especially for the younger age group. They simply cannot be expected to understand in-jokes. I remember it worried me, seeing Ms Black’s corpse, that young children, who had been following the story closely, became confused at this point. Was Aladdin locked in or not? It had been a matter of life and death. So why was he laughing?
At a recent performance of my adaptation of THE TIGER WHO CAME TO TEA, through nobody’s fault the Tiger’s tail fell off. The actor didn’t realise what had happened, but a fellow actor quickly picked up the tail and popped it in a cupboard. A few adults in the audience laughed. They realised it was a mistake. But the children didn’t. For them the plot had moved on. The Tiger had lost his tail and now it was in a cupboard. A perfectly reasonable fantasy story idea. No more fantastical than the actual story in which a tiger comes to tea. I’m sure that many of the children couldn’t understand why the Tiger never found his tail. They expected the story to end happily, and a tailless tiger left things unresolved.
Years ago, ten minutes into a performance of THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT WENT TO SEE …, a large lump of plaster fell from the ceiling of the Jeannetta Cochrane Theatre into the auditorium – mercifully onto the only empty seats in an otherwise full house of schoolchildren. A few children received grazes. The show had to stop mid-story (the theatre was subsequently closed for two years for repairs) and the children were escorted to the foyer to wait for their coaches. The cast and I came to talk to them. Many of them, not having been to a theatre before, thought that the interruption had been part of the story. One explained it to me, with a knowing nod, ‘You see, the Dong with a luminous nose was crying …’
We cannot, of course, prevent such accidents, but we must use our common sense and look at our work from a child’s viewpoint. There are theatrical conventions they will not understand, and if we distort them, we risk them understanding even less. In a schools’ touring production of THE BFG I saw, the story was told using only three actors, doubling and trebling like mad. This kind of worked most of the time, but when the Big Friendly Giant suddenly – in view – put on a dress and became the Queen of England, the young audience around me, not unreasonably, assumed that the BFG was disguising himself as the Queen, rather like the wolf disguises himself as Red Riding Hood’s Grandmother. They reacted logically to the costume change, not realising it was part of the theatricality of the production, and that the actor had changed costume in order to change character. For some unexplained reason, the BFG was pretending to be the Queen.
In a production of my play THE GINGERBREAD MAN, I once saw Sleek the Mouse indulge in an altercation with a follow spot beam. It was a variation on the music hall gag where the lime has a mind of its own and refuses to settle on the artiste. It sometimes develops into an argument with the operator at the back of the circle. This theatrical joke went completely over the heads of the children, who all turned round to try to see the source of the beam of light. One asked his friend, ‘Is that the moon?’ Chaos ensued, and poor old Sleek found it hard to get his audience back.
It is at our peril that we aim over the heads of our young audience. Until they understand the conventions of theatre, they cannot be expected to appreciate the fun when we break them or send them up.
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