Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Summer Bunch of Children’s Plays

There must be something about the summer, but in the past weeks I have found myself at three different children’s theatre productions.

The first, part of the Sydney Festival program for 2011, was Snow on Mars, staged at the Seymour Centre by Kim Carpenter’s Theatre of Image and directed by Gale Edwards.

This production, filled to the rafters with lively children, was almost in the order of professional overkill, with highly skilled members of the physical theatre company Legs on the Wall performing death-defying (though thankfully with harnesses in place) feats to signify what astronauts do in space, and professional actors like Deborah Kennedy (a very young grandma) and Tom Burlinson (the on-screen Aussie astronaut Andy Thomas).

Carpenter’s trademark visual imagery was evident in atmospheric skyline and the tiny model caravans that conjured up a remote caravan park where 12 year old Waylon (physical theatre performer Rick Everett) plays out his dream of becoming an astronaut with his friend Gabi (Daniel Jackson) against an unstable family background. The acting team was completed by Elliot Weston as Waylon’s country singer dad.

The concept is Carpenter’s, the script is Richard Tulloch’s, their second collaboration for this company. Visually magical, Snow on Mars was conceived by Carpenter to be equally suitable for children and adults. I would question this, for while most adults who take children to such plays go in a spirit of good humour, the subject matter with its strong message of following your dreams, is plainly for the young. At one point for instance, the question arises as to what subject Waylon might follow for his school project. “Space!” quite a small audience member in time-honoured kids’ pantomime fashion. He was right, but the interaction belonged firmly in the arena of children’s theatre, quite unlike Carpenter’s play Little Beauty, created for Canberra’s National Portrait Gallery in 2010.

Back in Canberra at the Canberra Theatre’s Courtyard Studio, I tackled Free Rain Theatre’s production of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, directed by Jordan Best. With a script and songs written by Peter Best, who composed the music for everything from The Adventures of Barry McKenzie to Crocodile Dundee and Muriel’s Wedding, it could hardly have gone wrong. Best, now a grandfather, addressed his play firmly to the very young and one of the most attractive features of the production was that it simply told a story through songs, so you knew where you were.

There was scope audience interaction, though such little children Where reluctant to warn the bears about Goldilocks or vice versa. The play was dominated by three very funny bears, (Jim Adamik, Kiki Skountos and Brendan Kelly) so that Alex de Toth, though ostensibly a child, was in danger of falling victim to the adage that one should get never act with animals.

Well-judged for its age group and totally without complication, Goldilocks and the Three Bears demonstrated how wise it is to use good performers when playing to the very young, and how in the end, this practice can not be called overkill. Children, as the cliché goes, are the audiences of the future and they deserve respect.

There is no mystery about the purpose of Snow on Mars or Goldilocks—both involved experienced performers putting on shows for child audiences.

Not so with Hansel and Gretel, presented at Belconnen Theatre by Ickle Pickle Productions. Here was young people’s theatre with a different purpose in mind—involvement.

Director Justin Watson has settled into a workable holiday formula which involves taking mixed casts of experienced and inexperienced actors and training them up to take part in shows that a largely aimed at sympathetic relatives.

We should not expect backing acting standards comparable to that in professional shows, so there are only a small handful of actors who really get into their roles. But this is a joyous experience to all those involved and you can see it in their faces.

With set designer Wayne Shepherd cooking up a fantasy Black Forest backdrop and Canberra scriptwriter Peter McDonald turning out his fourth play for the company, the stage was set for fun.

McDonald’s formula is to use a well-known fairy tale and update it, but in Hansel and Gretel he takes this formula over the top. The two little innocents are supposed to be from an impoverished family but this merely means their iPod batteries are running down. The Wicked Witch is really a frustrated chef determined on getting into Masterchef and any cannibalistic undertones are swept away in the parody. I found McDonald’s puns and corny jokes increasingly tiresome, but then I wasn’t the target audiences – the parents were.

Thesethree  very recent theatrical experiences had me thinking, for whom does children’s theatre exist? For eager young participants on stage? Floodtide working parents helping their children to an arts experience? Or for young audiences looking to experience the magic of theatre? The answer, no doubt, is all three.

-Snow on Mars, at the Seymour Centre by Kim Carpenter’s Theatre of Image, 7 to 16 Jan January.

-Free Rain Theatre’s Goldilocks and the Three Bears at the Canberra Theatre’s Courtyard Studio, 13 - 22 January
-Hansel and Gretel, presented at Belconnen Theatre by Ickle Pickle Productions. January 14 -29.

Helen Musa