Free School Meals

Scripted by Luca Rutherford and devised with the company
Unfolding Theatre co-production with Northern Stage
Stage 2, Northern Stage, Newcastle

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Free School Meals Credit: Luke Waddington
Free School Meals Credit: Luke Waddington
Free School Meals Credit: Luke Waddington
Free School Meals Credit: Luke Waddington
Free School Meals Credit: Luke Waddington
Free School Meals Credit: Luke Waddington

We are in The Future.

Well, we are a restaurant called The Future and it’s run by sixteen kids aged 7 to 12. Actually, there’s one who is aged 4 but she can only work afternoons so she wasn’t there when I was. They’ve got a general dogsbody to help them out; he’s called Alex Elliott and he’s a grown-up.

As it’s their opening night they’ve got another grown-up to help them entertain their first guests. She’s Kay Greyson and she’s a rapper and singer-songwriter.

The problem is, the food hasn’t arrived and all of us patrons are at there, two to a table, so they get on the phone to the supplier.

Sorted (after a bit of angered arguing)! The food’s coming!

And then it arrives, in lots and lots of big (some almost as big as the smallest of the children) cardboard boxes. Eagerly our young restauranteurs begin to unpack.

Disappointment! There’s only one item in each box: a carrot, a slice of processed cheese, a single piece of fruit…

Sound familiar? A bit like the government’s idea of what constitutes a good midday meal of schoolkids which inspired Marcus Rashford’s free school meals campaign of last year.

This is the starting point for Free School Meals.

These kids, from the Byker and Walker areas of Newcastle, have worked in weekly sessions with Unfolding Theatre’s director Annie Rigby, associate artist Alex Elliott and writer Lucas Rutherford to create their response to the free school meals scandal (for scandal it was, have no doubt about that) and this is that response, which is also the first event of the Northern Stage Housewarming season, welcoming audiences back after so long.

And this was a brilliant choice to be that first production because it firmly places Northern Stage at the heart of its community – diverse and welcoming, regardless of ethnicity or age.

First and foremost, however, it is a play and works well as one, involving and engaging its audience. Annie Rigby’s direction makes sure that we are as involved as we possibly can be. It’s done in an unusual in-the-round setting with the audience in the middle, separate stages on all four sides and the performers frequently passing through.

At one point one of the boys knocked against me as he passed carrying a box but he wasn’t fazed. “Oo, sorry” he said and carried on.

The kids were great. They weren’t playing, they were performing and were really invested in what they were doing and they made us feel that this restaurant, this campaign were really important to them.

This really worked as a piece of theatre and the fact that the performers were all under 12 gave it real impact.

A great start, Northern Stage. And it’s great to be back!

Reviewer: Peter Lathan