Of all the various kinds of theatre there are—think for a minute: there are an awful lot!—the one which is most ignored by critics and public alike is children’s theatre. Your average audience—and your average critic—will go to see a play, a musical, a panto, dance theatre, solo theatre, classical theatre, modern circus, political theatre, comedy, farce, satire. They’ll happily watch a murder mystery, either in a theatre or a restaurant, or brave the weather to watch an outdoor show, or even follow a show around in a promenade performance. Many will enjoy an operetta, a bit of G&S or Strauss, or even a full-scale opera, especially a heart-breaker like Bohème or Traviata. An increasing number will take themselves along to a spoken word or performance poetry evening. Ballet is always popular and more and more are appreciating contemporary dance. Impro, too, attracts the punters more and more. Newcastle’s Alphabetti has two impro shows a month and they’re very popular. And, remaining in the North East, Newcastle-based The Suggestibles’ improvised panto tours the region every year to great acclaim.
But ask the majority of these same people to go to—or, in the case of critics, to review—a children’s show and they’ll make an excuse and leave. And that, my friends, is a big shame, because good children’s theatre is simply good theatre.
And surprise, surprise, all children’s theatre is not the same. There are plays which tell tales which the kids already know and others which tell new stories. There are musical shows and comedy shows and participatory shows. There are fairy tales and really quite gritty modern stories. There are shows from “off the tele”—Cbeebies is a particularly rich source for the very young—and shows based on familiar books—The Tiger Who Came to Tea and We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, are just two examples for younger children. For those who are a bit older, there are stagings of books by Roald Dahl (James and the Giant Peach, for example) or by Edith Nesbitt (The Railway Children). And for those even older (young adults is, I believe, the preferred term) books like Malory Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses have been adapted for the stage.
There are shows whose sole purpose is to entertain and shows which help their audience come to terms with their fears and the problems of growing up. There are shows which help them understand the world about them. There are shows which ignite their imagination and others which make them think.
In other words, children’s theatre is exactly like adult theatre—except in one respect. The children have not yet learned audience etiquette and if they are bored, they will show it. At a “regular” theatre show the occasional adult may leave in the middle of an act but the majority who do not like what they are seeing, out of politeness, leave their departure until the interval (and some even stay to the bitter end), but children will talk, wander off or simply ignore the play and the actors.
Allow me to let you into this particular critic’s trade secret—Lathan’s scale of children's theatre boredom. It’s simple really and applies to children of primary school age in general but the younger they are, the more accurate it is. The fewer the children who “need” to go to the toilet during a performance, the better the show is gripping them. A constant stream of toilet-goers is a sure and certain sign of a production which fails to interest its audience.
But, in case this puts you off attending a children’s show, I can assure you the toilet-goers are normally few and far between, because, like their adult theatre counterparts, children’s theatre creatives and actors not only understand their audience and know what they’re doing but they do it damned well too.
Here at the BTG we’ve just added a new listing section, adding Children/YPT to Dance, Opera, Musicals, Panto, Festivals, Podcasts, Circus, Touring and Writing. This is alongside, of course, listings of reviews, news, features, podcasts, festivals and individual regions. Here you’ll find recent relevant reviews, features and news stories conveniently listed. Children’s and Young People’s Theatre weekly updates will therefore also be separately in the Newsletter.
Give children's theatre a go if you haven't already. You'll find it very rewarding.