“What is wrong with our generation? I mean, what is up with it?” a man asks, wearily. “I know, I know,” the man to his left agrees. “I mean the clothes these girls wear,” the first man continues, “they’re just inappropriate.” “Totally inappropriate,” agrees the second, “the other day, there was a girl in our year wearing a skirt like this short, walking down the street. And this older guy – like he was in sixth form – looked at her like she was an object, and the girl actually liked that!” “It’s terrible,” chimes in the first man.
In Chris Goode’s humorous, eye-opening and frequently moving new play, the words of eight to ten year-old children are placed into the mouths of adult actors, in adult situations, inviting reflection from an adult audience. What is most striking is the degree to which very ‘mature’ concerns, fears and pleasures are voiced by such young people, via these grownup mouthpieces. This is as true of an animated discussion of the monarchy staged between argumentative workmates in a bar as it is of a moving monologue in which a boy (that is, man) describes his obsession with watching footage of the unrest in the Middle East because, as a Muslim, he feels that these are his people. The ‘adultness’ of the children’s thoughts and the sincerity of their outrage, fear or concern about significant issues is repeatedly arresting.
However, that is not to say that the quirks of certain childish traits are not also enjoyably preserved with the play. From the casual over-accuracy of a child asked how many spectators watched him as a mascot at Twickenham stadium (“About… 61,000”), to the delightfully Machiavellian bragging of a child who has perfected the art of crocodile tears to great effect at home. These childlike peculiarities also feed hilariously into the adult contexts in which Goode has resituated many of the conversations, such as a job interview in which the candidate is asked haughtily “What is your favourite sweet and why?” as well as what she would do in a variety of imaginative related scenarios: “If you were a bubble gum creature, what would you do?”
The play is structured as a series of short scenes, some including the whole cast (three female and three male actors) and some involving just one performer at a time. Rather than concealing the ‘material-gathering method’ behind the script, this is exposed right from the beginning, with Karl (James, who worked with Goode on the project), appearing as a character on stage to explain to the children the purpose and modus operandi of the audio-recording. He is also seen intermittently throughout played alternately by different actors, posing thoughtful questions to the children. The actors also make obvious visual reference to the play’s central premise by entering dressed in the neutral, slightly vulnerable apparel of pants and vest, and dressing themselves onstage into that most fiercely ‘grown-up’ of costumes: corporate attire. What’s more, small touches of physicality or delivery of lines by the actors seem to hint at their younger selves, but (in their subtlety) also highlight the fact that such infantile traces are always, already, seen in adults. At the play’s start, a young man slumps dreamily forward, looking intently at a plate of green jelly before him. He strums a guitar softly and tunelessly, singing “Jelly Man, shake for me, shake for me.” There is a tangible aura of ‘small boy’ about him – but is he simply behaving as an adult genuinely might? From start to finish, Monkey Bars succeeds in provoking us to question our reactions to the scenes and characters before us, and consequently to children in the wider world.
But the play also serves frequently as a reminder of the degree to which children are both aware of our behaviour and impressionable to it. Curious expressions (“There is no difference between tramps and bankers”) paint a humorous, slightly confused image of scoffing parents while other flashes of dialogue poignantly reveal home lives that are troublesome but accepted (one character makes light of arming his mother with an umbrella as his father was beating her).
Never mocking or heavy-handed in their approach, a strong, talented ensemble are up to the challenge of transmitting the tone and meaning of each child’s words, while simultaneously projecting it authentically into the adult contexts of the play. Goode’s success as a writer and director is to allow the text to speak through the clean lines of the production, overdoing nothing. Notwithstanding a premise which could so easily become contrived, far-fetched or distracting, the sense of simplicity and honesty maintained throughout the play is testimony to Goode’s sleight of hand as a writer and proficiency as a director.
Monkey Bars is playing at the Traverse Theatre until 26 August. For more information and tickets, see the Traverse Theatre website.