Thursday, October 6, 2011

Little Day Out. Justine Clarke and her three-piece band

Little Day Out. Justine Clarke and her three-piece band at Canberra Theatre, October 6, 2011.

Reviewed by Frank McKone

As a theatre experience for littlies on an imaginary day out – when they are actually on a real littlies’ day out to the theatre – Justine Clarke’s show is not to be missed. But you will have to try to squeeze your way in to the Sydney Opera House on Saturday October 8. The original Canberra tour publicity mentioned only the 10am show that I saw today, but this was followed by a 12 noon performance as well, so I can only assume that bookings for Saturday will be overflowing.

And so they should be. Justine (I’m sure I can use first names like all the ABC Playschool viewers do) is not just multi-talented but speaks personally to every child in the audience, fully justifying her claim “If you imagine there’s one child sitting on the floor watching, and you might actually get that child up on her feet, spark her imagination, that’s really everything you want to do as an actor. You want to tell a story and for that to ignite something.”

She certainly ignited a toddler’s mosh pit in the Canberra Theatre and absolutely nobody cried despite the crush. Good training for when they become teenagers. Adulation training – but without the negative overtones they will have to learn to watch for in later years.

Acculturation training is another way of looking at this show, and others like it. Over the years I’ve seen a few. They are not all so alike when I look back.

The Playschool tradition, stretching at least from Justine Clarke back to Monica Trapaga clearly stands out because these performers are experienced actors and musicians who are expert at communicating, through the tv screen and on stage.

Shows not in this league that I recall are the Gary Ginivan style in Pooh (2000) when I heard a parent explain to her 3-year-old after the show, "A movie's on a big screen. This was a play." It was hard to tell the difference. Much the same was true of the Dora the Explorer Live! show Dora’s Pirate Adventure (2008) where the whole performance was in lock-step with a pre-recorded sound track and everything from eye-flashing to emotional expression was pure formula. Even Humphrey B Bear, which perhaps ironically began Justine’s career when she appeared as a littlie in an Arnott’s biscuit advertisement, never matched Playschool for personality and quality contact with children.

Learning to appreciate good theatre is one aspect of acculturation which I think children can never get enough of. And I could never complain about the wide range of musical styles, as well as the basics of singing, rhythm and dancing in Justine’s work. But there are aspects of the content of the songs which had me thinking.

Almost everything in the show is colonial white and British. Although it is secular, as it should be to maintain independence from religious affiliation, one would think that Australia is absolutely monocultural except for one feature: the music, which varied from jazz, reggae, country and western, and even Aussie 70’s to a smidgeon of Beatles in the pre-show intro. This was reinforced when under the sea Justine found a yellow submarine.

Otherwise the only non-British bit was in the Gum Tree Family song, where we find in and around the tree a kookaburra, a koala, a platypus and a kangaroo. But soon after we are back hopping with bunnies as if we don’t have an Australian hopping mouse – or a bilby. Even the sun is merely ‘yellow’ shining mildly through – on the big screen – English green oak leaves (though I could be mistaken – perhaps they were Canadian maple). And, despite the range of people in the audience, there was nothing to discover on this Little Day Out about all the different coloured people who live in Australia, or the people who live in dry red country and have never built a sandcastle at the seaside or even seen the sea.

So, educationally speaking, I would dearly love to see Justine’s wonderful theatrical skills turned more towards our children’s lives in this country. Even Dora the Explorer teaches American children the Spanish they will need when Latinos outnumber Europeans in many areas, though I’m sure Justine could do similar teaching much more subtly than Dora. Let’s take our littlies on an imaginary day out in a more Australian land. After all, how British are the Teletubbies, and how American is Sesame Street?