Taking a young child or sibling to a play can seem a chore; a desperate attempt to entertain them and get them out the house. Pixar and Disney sugar the pill by adding a layer of knowing jokes that will pass over younger heads whilst amusing the adults. Theatre companies increasingly invest in advanced technology and set designs with a wider visual appeal. ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ and ‘Matilda’ are both spectacular. Throw in some catchy song lyrics and dance routines – ‘Lion King’ style – and the hours will pass quickly.
Yet some children’s shows are daring a more challenging approach. Simon McBurney’s unparalleled Complicite company produced ‘Lionboy’, a dystopian vision where phones are solar powered, cars are banned, and companies are more powerful than countries. A boy who talks to cats strives, with the help of a circus, to rescue his kidnapped parents. The play can act as an introduction to more challenging theatre, that is more than just a means of wiling away the hours Candy Crush style. Enjoying ‘LionBoy’ may lead to giving a chance to Complicite’s equally experimental and surreal productions such as ‘The Master and Margarita’. Taking a chance on last year’s immersive, and sometimes disturbing, ‘Grimm Tales’ in the basement of Shoreditch Town Hall might prompt a visit to some of the astonishing Punchdrunk immersive experiences.
‘The Twits’ at The Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square, based on the Roahl Dahl book, lay somewhere in-between. The set was put together with expert precision, making the most of the theatre space it was performed in. There were layers of walls and pieces of scenery which were lowered from the ceiling, lit up and rotated to create the environment desired. I think I enjoyed it more than my younger sister: seeing this familiar story brought to life made me feel like a child again. Less successful is the regularly resuscitated production of ‘The Gruffalo’, aimed at a much younger audience and tedious to the extreme for anyone over 16. Speech patterns designed for restless six year olds become old very quickly. The only saving grace is that, with short attention spans in mind, these plays tend to run for less than an hour.
There is a lot of writing about the infantilisation of modern culture. The tube is full of adults reading teenage fiction, possibly on their way to franchise films aimed at teenage boys. Take your younger brothers, sisters, cousins, or friends to the theatre. You may find yourself laughing along with the children and loving the play. Be brave and don’t go for the lowest common denominator. Try Shakespeare (perhaps A Midsummer’s Night Dream rather than Coriolanus!). Don’t under-estimate young minds, they may thank you for it later.