Discovering the Magic of Early Years Theatre–Part 1

I’ve had the unusual privilege of experiencing three early years theatre shows in one week – how exciting! Being the glutton that I am for hunting down excellent quality work, I had high expectations and wasn’t at all disappointed by any of the three pieces I saw. Over the next three weeks, I’ll bring you a review of each one in turn, and highlight some of the key features of the magic of early years theatre. So grab a coffee and your diary in case you want to book your own private viewing!

Monday’s Child by Leeds based company, Tutti Frutti.

This captivating piece about the growing bond between a little girl and her forgetful grandma during the onset of what might have been Alzheimer’s was a joy to watch. Beautifully written by Brendan Murray, the clever narrative hung together and flowed like a piece of dance, incorporating super opportunities for playing with timing and humour, and a good understanding of the issue from a cross-generational perspective. It must have been great fun to act in!

Both actresses had superb presence and were completely immersed in their characters, making them very believable. The girl showed traits of being slightly over-active, responding to every stimulation physically if not verbally, and thoroughly enjoying her grandma’s attention. This was in stark contrast to her grandma whose slow, thoughtful, forgetful state wonderfully offset the grand daughter’s slightly manic disposition. It was a testament to their strength of playing those roles that they were able to achieve such a subtle balance, enhancing the impact of the beautiful relationship between the characters which was built up at a lovely pace.

One of the key features of successful early years theatre is often seen in the ability to keep the focus on the story without overwhelming the stage, actors and audience with complex sets and props. This show was no exception, with a simple set reflecting an outdoor space – perhaps a garden or park area - enabling plenty of imagination to be engaged and lots of opportunities for extending ideas with the different props. The use of a garden bench around which most of the action flowed allowed some fantastic physical movement from both characters, and gave rise to plenty of opportunities for non-verbal humour, which the children were able to appreciate.

The theme of treasure boxes, which was referenced throughout the play, will have been familiar to many young children who collect and store treasures themselves, and brought home the importance of preserving memories and building bonds between older and younger generations. In fact, there was plenty of rich content and activities for teachers and parents alike to use in extended conversations with children about family, friendships, love and care, memories, illnesses, treasure boxes, collections and storage, outdoor play and grandparents. It didn’t seem too packed with themes, but there was definitely something that almost all children would have connected with at one stage or another.

The only question mark I had was around the clarity of intention in one particular symbolic device often used in early years theatre. I’ll explain what I mean to start with and then explore the example here. When working with very young children, it’s important that the intention of an action or story is conveyed with authenticity and integrity, and that the meaning is carried through consistently from beginning to end.

Children are exceptionally good at suspending their disbelief, i.e. believing in the magic of a story, when the story is offered with genuine honesty. If part of the story is delivered in a way that lacks integrity and reveals that the storyteller doesn’t believe it themselves, then children will see through this immediately and either become confused as to how to respond, mistrustful of the remainder of the story (resulting in loss of interest), or the brighter ones will wonder if it is something that is meant to trick them and wait for the punchline to reveal the real meaning. The same thing can happen when symbolic devices are used to show an intention for something to happen, but then used in a different way later on, which can cause confusion or loss of interest in young minds.

In this example, at one point during Monday’s Child, the characters engaged common early years theatre devices to engage young children’s interest: balloons and bubbles. Both characters were happily playing away with these and suddenly found themselves amongst a sea of little arms and bodies reaching up to join in the play. For understandable reasons, the actors did not wish to have the children on set during the play, and there was a slightly uncomfortable pause in the show whilst three skilful stewards shepherded the reluctant and somewhat confused children back to their cushions whilst the actors held their positions.

The intention of using balloon and bubbles was of course full of honesty and integrity – to reflect the playfulness of the birthday celebrations in the story in an engaging and lively way. However, the confusion came from the fact that the grand daughter had, in character, spent a good deal of time interacting with the children prior to the show. She asked them lots of questions about themselves, their interests, their birthdays, their families, the places they best liked to go to or the creatures they liked the most, and responded to them as a five year old would. It was a charming introduction and the older children seemed to accept the fact that, once the character entered the magical sphere of the stage set and began playing out the story, she was no longer able to interact with them directly.

However, this caused confusion for the younger children who had been excited to interact with the granddaughter’s playful questioning, and therefore felt invited to share her play space when the traditional symbols of invitation to play appeared, i.e. balloons and bubbles. These are not activities young children like to sit and watch. Every fibre of their being wants to naturally get involved and chase, catch, burst, swipe at and jump around with, and at this late stage in the play, the children were more than ready for action!

There is always a tricky balance to get right between inclusion of young audience at the same time as keeping the invisible fourth wall (and artistic integrity of the show) intact. Nevertheless, it was handled with speed and ease by the stewards, professional integrity by the actors, compliant – if a little reluctant – responses by the children and the show continued without any further problems, further enhanced by the lovely invitation to all children to play at the end.

Monday’s child was a touching portrayal of love and friendship through the eyes of the very old and the very young, and I was thrilled to see Tutti Frutti’s repertoire boosted with this wonderful production. Unfortunately their tour has now finished but do sign up to their mailing list for news of their forthcoming shows:

Author and reviewer, Ruth Churchill Dower, is the Director of Earlyarts

Image Credits: Brian Slater for Tutti Frutti