Feature: Christmas in Theatreland – It’s Child’s Play

This Christmas, there is a drive to put smaller bums on seats. A handful of the country’s most treasured theatre-makers have abandoned the urge to appease long-standing luvvies and notoriously tough critics, seeking instead the delighted squeals and wide-eyed wonderment of an altogether younger – though no less shrewd – audience. Children’s theatre and family shows are hitting the headlines in the arts pages this December, what with a whole host of established names turning to this usually underpublicised art form, just in time for the school holidays.

At the National Theatre, Associate Director Katie Mitchell follows up the success of last year’s The Cat in the Hat with a devised adaptation of Beauty and the Beast for children aged eight to twelve. Arguably the marmite of the theatrical world, Mitchell is best known for her mixed media extravaganzas, her contentious ‘auteur’ status, and her macabre reworkings of complex classics by the likes of Dostoyevsky and Virginia Woolf. Interesting, then, that this ‘princess of darkness’ (as Telegraph critic Charles Spencer once termed her) should return to the National for a second year running to cater for a younger audience more partial to the A. A. Milnes, Enid Blytons and J. K. Rowlings of this world.

But Mitchell is not alone. Newly appointed Artistic Director of Bristol Old Vic, Tom Morris, is currently staging Swallows & Amazons complete with song, dance and puppetry, while Anthony Neilson, of ‘in-yer-face’ fame, has penned a new, family show entitled Get Santa! for the Royal Court this winter. Even acclaimed playwright Dennis Kelly – well-known for his choice of sinister subject matter spanning violence, racism, and, in one play, infanticide (!) – is intent on finding his inner child this Christmas, as he adapts Roald Dahl’s celebrated schoolgirl story Matilda for the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon, with original music and lyrics by Aussie comedian and singer-songwriter, Tim Minchin.

So what exactly is it that’s attracting these big names and serious thesps to little people and creating arguably ‘childish’ work? Tom Morris addresses the concept of ‘play’, central to theatre-making. “There are some areas in life”, he reflects, “in which children are genuine experts, and just as I would go to a University to understand how to research a scientific question, I would go to a children’s playground in order to learn how to play”. Katie Mitchell similarly views the open, uninhibited nature of infancy and youth as a source of inspiration for her own rehearsal room antics, and, more broadly, as a means of combating the lack of imagination that – to her mind – poses a very real threat to British drama.

And while it’s all very well to conceptualize about the importance of children’s theatre, the reality of actually making the stuff – of holding an auditorium full of young’uns rapt for several hours at a time – is, in itself, no mean feat. In an interview with the Times, Mitchell recalls that children who watched The Cat in the Hat expected ‘to see the book moving’ and, as such, staging Dr Zeuss’ classic was, by her own admission, one of the hardest directing jobs she’d ever taken on. During her more recent rehearsals for Beauty and the Beast, she invited school children into the studio once every three days to gauge their responses. On these occasions, she simply observed the little ones in the act of observing, making sure to carefully note down the exact points at which their attention strayed and then to devise new, inventive ways of winning it back.

Indeed, Mitchell’s production has attracted a great deal of attention in the lead-up to the school holidays. But will the current media hype around children’s theatre extend beyond the festive season? Because – to adapt a well-known phrase – children’s shows aren’t just for Christmas! And yet, they tend to receive very little press the rest of the year round. While the genre provides Morris, Mitchell and other established names with something of a festive respite – a break from the ‘heavier’ stuff of Shakespeare and Chekhov – there are a whole host of underpublicised specialist companies and establishments dedicated to the continual production of quality children’s theatre all year round.

In London alone, the Polka, the Unicorn, the Little Angel and the Half Moon stage work for young people and their families, yet coverage and recognition from the mainstream media is negligible. Moreover, these organisations dedicate large portions of their programming to new writing, which finds itself in something of a minority in traditional theatres this Christmas amidst countless adaptations of classic children’s tales. In December and January alone, there are seven shows on at East London’s Half Moon suitable for children aged four and up, while the Unicorn can boast 620 performances each year, staged by the theatre’s own company as well as acclaimed UK-based and international touring groups. And that’s not including the broad programme of events and workshops that accompany their shows.

So if you’re seeing Katie Mitchell’s Beauty and the Beast this Christmas, why not check out the Unicorn’s very own version of the classic fairytale too? Or pop by the Polka to join just a tiny fraction of the 100,000 children who attend shows there each year, from the tender age of nine months through to the start of adolescence at 13 years old. These establishments are dedicated to providing the very best of children’s entertainment – an introduction to theatre that is ‘welcoming and relevant’, says Jonathan Lloyd, Artistic Director of the Polka. Because – crucially – these young audiences may well constitute the next generation of theatre-goers and theatre-makers in this country and their first experiences are vital in shaping their attitudes towards theatre and towards the arts more broadly.

If children’s theatre is not seen as ‘serious’ enough to occupy the arts pages from February through November, then it appears that it is legitimised – for the media, at least – by its staging in ‘serious’ establishments by ‘serious’ artists. But perhaps the likes of Swallows & Amazons, Beauty and the Beast and Matilda will incite journalists to seek out other children’s shows from slightly farther afield throughout the coming year. The Scotsman set a notable example this summer in awarding one of its prestigious Fringe First Awards to White – a show exclusively for two to four year olds. Other publications must follow suit, granting children’s theatre – and the establishments that stage it – the attention they deserve. This playful art form demands to be taken seriously.