At only a year old, Middle Child theatre is a relatively young company – and the same can said for its members. Paul Smith, director of the company’s latest show 25: 13 Red, 12 Blue, notes that “our oldest company member just turned 27, our youngest is 22”. The group first met while studying at Hull University and have since graduated within the last three to five years. After moving on to various drama schools and courses in London, the group returned to Hull, having “decided to come back to a city we’re really fond of, that we love, in order to allow our voices to be heard in an environment which we feel happy with, both creatively and as people.”
The ethos of the company is simple: “Our main mission statement, our main objective, is to carry on making theatre for a younger audience, for people who we can excite and help to discover what it is that makes theatre exciting.” Since founding Middle Child, the company has “set about making work that we hoped was relevant and urgent.”
The name of the company comes from the so called ‘middle child syndrome’: a theory that middle children are often somewhat neglected by their parents, leaving them “feeling kind of empty, inadequate and having low self-esteem”. As Smith explains, “they’re often not given much attention, but they’re determined to get noticed, even if that means being a bit naughty or getting some kind of punishment”. This is something the company can relate to, and “we believe that a lot of our generation feel that way as well.”
One of the ways in which our generation have perhaps been neglected is in the world of theatre, where the ‘young adult’ demographic is not always well catered for. “We’d come into it as people who love theatre and enjoy going to the theatre, and even we feel at times that there’s not sufficient options for people our age, or of the stuff that we’re excited by.” Middle Child have set out to fill this void – making theatre for young people, by young people. Smith explains: “It’s about being positive and making things happen, and I think, hopefully, if we can tap into some sense of what people care about they’ll want to come to the theatre again.”
This mission to give our generation a voice is at the forefront of the company’s newest production, 25. As Smith explains, “it’s about the 16-25 generation, which in the media has been called the ‘lost generation’, and it examines how we got to where we are and where we’re headed in the next few years.” The play also addresses another way in which our generation can be said to be suffering from ‘middle child syndrome’: in a political sense. “Where in the middle-child syndrome it’s the parents that let down the middle child, for us it’s the government who have let down the generation. So the play kind of came out of a similar feeling of wanting to be heard and wanting to be noticed.” This political aspect is an explicit part of the show, which bears the subtitle 13 red, 12 blue, signifying the number of years spent under Labour and Conservative power respectively.
The point being made is that both parties seem to have let this generation down, and “that’s one of the themes of the show – that we’re getting to the point now where who do you have faith in as politicians? It’s not as simple as party politics for us any more, it’s about politicians in general not giving us what we need.” Smith sums it up nicely when he explains “it looks back at a generation that were brought up by Thatcher, got excited by Tony Blair and New Labour, and now find themselves stuck with a coalition that no one seemed to really want and that didn’t even really win the election.”
While addressing these important issues, the play doesn’t claim to give any solutions or quick and easy fixes to the problem. “We’re not there really to offer answers, we’re more about provoking thought and provoking some kind of response.” However, they do hope that the play might inspire the younger members of the audience to seek these answers for themselves, or as Smith says: “I think we want them to leave with a sense of injustice, and a sense of ‘something has to change’.” Despite this, the play is not solely about the politics. “The thing we most worried about with making a piece of political theatre was making it purely polemic, so we really didn’t want it to be something as simple as a 55 minute rant against Cameron.”
Instead, the play is worked around the characters and their relationships. Focusing on these stories, “we try and show the generation as what we think we are – a real mixture of being spoilt, angry, apathetic, confused, let down, immature – but we do think that at the heart of all that there is a desire to be good and to make good things happen, despite the negative coverage that the media gives.” In this way, the bigger themes are filtered through human, relatable action, and “we made the play hoping that the politics we want to talk about come through the characters.”
What adds to the sincerity of the grievances expressed in the play is the fact that, for the company, these issues are a reality and not just a fiction. As Smith says, “a lot of the things that we’re writing about are relevant to us and things that make us angry, and we hope it’s the same for our audience – that they want to come along and explore the things they maybe haven’t given quite enough thought to or don’t quite understand yet.” The plot and structure of the play actually came off the back of several improvisations, where the actors “would be told to meet at a Whetherspoons in town between these hours, and then another character would turn up and they’d have a conversation. The whole play basically has been shaped from the results of those improvisations.”
As well as this, Smith tells me that rehearsals have been interspersed with discussions (and sometimes rants) about the issues at hand, and “it’s great to just get in a room and actually make a play about the thing that makes you angry every day”. However, while these issues are being faced by our generation now, Smith feels there is a kind of universal truth to them. “I do think we go round and round and round with the same problems and the same concerns and the same anger.” Because of this, there should be some recognition from older audience members, or as Smith puts it, “a kind of negative nostalgia”. “As much as this is about now and this is about the generation today, there are certainly hints about the past, and I’m sure a lot of it will come back again in the future”.
In terms of the company’s own future, they don’t look to be stopping championing the voice of youth any time soon. Even as Middle Child and its members grow older and are no longer part of the ‘young adult’ group “it’ll be about involving younger members, and always keeping the company as fresh as possible as we grow older.” This is not just for the sake of voicing the concerns of young people, but for the sake of theatre itself. As Smith explains “it’s important for companies to reach out to the younger generation, because they’re the people who are going to carry theatre on and not let it die.”
Image credit: Middle Child Theatre