I have often heard older millennials like me bemoaning a recent slump in the quality of live children’s entertainment on TV. Our parents had Crackerjack, and we had SMTV Live, but kids nowadays are lumped with Dora the Explorer. However the opposite trend seems to be occurring in theatre, where a survival-of-the-fittest economy is encouraging a healthy competition of creative ingenuity in family entertainment.

Circus collective Upswing confidently occupy the foremost ranks of this race, incorporating so many different theatrical disciplines in their beautiful new show, Bedtime Stories that even the grizzliest child and their most frazzled parent couldn’t help but find moments of true delight. The show dances blithely from puppetry to acrobatics and multimedia artistry, and as if this were not enough, Hazel Lam’s aerial ribbon work pushes this already multi-talented show into something really extraordinary. A hardy sense of adventure powers the narrative forward through twisting leaps of imaginative fun, spinning all of these elements together.

It’s a simple story of a little girl who doesn’t want to go to bed. Together with her roly-poly invisible pal, she goes on a journey of the imagination in search of the goodnight kiss from her overworked mum that will send her to sleep. The three performers blend effortless acrobatic work with enthusiastic storytelling and clowning, supported by projected animations and ambient music. The children and adults in the audience snuggle into mounds of cushions and blankets on the floor as if they too are ready for bed, creating a cuddly and intimate atmosphere.

As family theatre has become more and more competitive, theatre companies have realised the vital importance of offering something for the parents as well as for the children. While the acrobatic stunts and ambient storytelling provide plenty of entertainment for the watching adults, Bedtime Stories goes further once more, incorporating a subtle message that might float over the heads of the giggling children and hit their parents firmly in the heart.

The story’s stressed-out single mother character flits fretfully between her late-night work and her daughter, trapped in endless compromises, apologies and self-reprimands. “Five portions of fruit a day, twenty minutes of yoga a day, taxes, bills, school trip, call Mum,” she chants compulsively, in a startling parody of the impossible litany of demands that our inner voices recite to us daily. The message that Bedtime Stories communicates to the adults in the room is to be found in its recurring motif of a bird being let free from a cage: sometimes it’s alright just to let things go. As an unencumbered twenty-something, I found being given permission not always to meet all of these self-imposed demands extremely comforting, so I can only imagine the power it might have upon the overstretched parent of several children.

Bedtime Stories is a wonderful introduction to theatre for children, showcasing an enormous breadth of theatrical possibility within a single production. Upswing have packed this hour-long piece absolutely full of theatrical value, creating an ambitious and enchanting show for grizzly children and frazzled parents alike.

Bedtime Stories will be touring to UK venues from September onwards, for details visit the Upswing website.

Photo: David Pinkens