sun 22/09/2019

Opinion: There's more to children's theatre than panto | reviews, news & interviews

Opinion: There's more to children's theatre than panto

Opinion: There's more to children's theatre than panto

Christmas is not all about cross-dressing, says the playwright who adapted The Railway Children

Oh no they aren't: the cast of West Yorkshire Playhouse's 'Jack and the Beanstalk' rehearse

So, Christmas again then. Ho ho ho. It comes around every year. Cards, crackers, baubles, TV specials. And panto. I am a playwright. I write mostly for children and their families. I tend not to say I'm a children's writer because it's rare that a child has made the decision to come to one of my plays. A parent, teacher or loving adult has made that decision and forked out the money. Children can't access my work by turning on the telly or going to the library. So all my writing is of necessity aimed at two audiences. My primary audience is the children and young people who come, but ask the weeping adults at the end of The Railway Children if the children are the only audience affected by it.

But for the sake of argument, let’s say that I've spent most of my adult life working in children’s theatre. Children’s theatre is inextricably linked with Christmas. It’s the time when families go to the theatre, often the only time. And Christmas is joined at the hip with panto. People (people I know, who know me) say to me, "We're coming to see your panto." I might be forced to shoot them.

I don't do panto because I have no interest in doing it. I don’t deny it’s often clever, the production values are high, and it makes me laugh, but everything about it is in inverted commas. Everything about it says, "Don’t take this seriously." At its best a panto is a glorious confection, a Knickerbocker Glory. At its worst it’s the Turkey Twizzler of the theatre world.

I take no issue with the content. I also like to take traditional tales as a starting point. This year I have done a version of Jack and the Beanstalk for the West Yorkshire Playhouse. Jack and the Beanstalk is about a boy who is lazy and a bit useless. He has never done anything but cling to his mother’s apron strings. She tells him the milk has dried up, the eggs too, and he has to do something about it. This is the stuff of Freudian analysis. The boy offers his precious magic seed to his mother, she rejects it and he wakes up in the morning with a huge beanstalk that blocks out the sun?! He has to climb up it and destroy the giant scary father figure. That's up there with Oedipus as a myth, a psychological blueprint for becoming a man. Has anyone ever suggested Oedipus might be improved by Jocasta dressing up as Lady Gaga and telling us she's "caught in a bad romance?" Maybe somebody should.

The theatre is a safe place, but it's not a place to hide from the world’s harsh realities

Serious work doesn't have to be po-faced or difficult. A show can make you laugh and cry too. Why does Little Red Riding Hood’s mother dress her in red and send her, unprotected, through the forest where the wolf lives? Because we cannot always protect our children, and we know they will be a target for bad people. We need them to learn that. We also need them to learn that the real danger will come from the people who look harmless - "Grandma what big teeth you have" - or that it is easy to be loved when you are beautiful and dressed up at the ball, but what you really need is for someone to love you when you are in rags in your kitchen.

At the West Yorkshire Playhouse, for the last five years, we have set out to provide an alternative to panto. I want to create the shows I would have liked to take my own children to when they were younger, to do them with imagination, warmth and integrity. And to rescue the big myths of childhood from tack and glitter. I want an audience to laugh, to feel happy, but this is not all I want. I want them to feel disturbed, moved, stretched. The theatre is a safe place, but it's not a place to hide from the world’s harsh realities. It's a place to confront them. It's a place to experience danger. I want people to leave my plays feeling satisfied, not slightly sick from having overdone the sugar.

  • Jack and the Beanstalk at West Yorkshire Playhouse from 9 December
This is the stuff of Freudian analysis. The boy offers his precious magic seed to his mother, she rejects it and he wakes up in the morning with a huge beanstalk that blocks out the sun?!

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