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Susan Elkin: Children’s theatre is for life, not just for Christmas

Gorilla at the Polka Theatre. Photo: Robert Workman Gorilla at the Polka Theatre. Photo: Robert Workman
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I’ve seen a whole series of cracking shows for children in recent weeks including Gorilla, Tiddler and Other Terrific Tales, and The Gruffalo. The latter two are in the West End for the summer and the former is at Polka Theatre. Coming up are Hetty Feather and Horrible Histories – both of which I’ve seen before so I’ll be surprised if I don’t enjoy them again. I’m hoping to get to Running Wild at Chichester next month too… and so it goes on. Like the best ‘children’s’ books a good show for children is for everyone not just for children. And children’s theatre isn’t just for Christmas either.

I’m struck by the wealth of interesting work for actors such shows provide. They tell stories, play musical instruments, get very close to the audience and there’s often a lot of physical theatre involved – not to mention managing quite tricky sets. The set for Tiddler and Other Terrific Tales is largely resting  planks and tables and it must take a deal of skilful agility to avoid accidents. The Gorilla set is deliciously ingenious but it’s the two-hander cast who have to remember almost as many set adjustments as they do lines.

The actors are highly skilled and versatile

Children’s theatre certainly isn’t for the faint hearted and I find it very tiresome when it isn’t taken seriously by people who ought to know better. It isn’t any cheaper to stage because if you present work for children with inferior production values it fails – as any other theatre will if you try to cut corners. Moreover these are highly skilled, versatile actors many of whom dedicate themselves to this less-than-well-paid work. For the best of them, children’s theatre isn’t just a stepping stone to ‘proper’ acting for grown-ups – it’s what they do. And critics, and their editors, are as guilty as anyone else of failing to recognise this because a lot of fine shows – at Polka Theatre, the Unicorn, Half Moon and Little Angel Theatre, for example – are not reviewed often enough in national newspapers although, it has to be said, we’re pretty good at covering them in The Stage.

Three cheers then for actors – Ceri Ashcroft and Phil Yarrow currently in Gorilla for instance – who do a lot of children’s theatre and do it with real love and professionalism. Playwrights such as David Wood and Mike Kenny and directors like Rosamund Hutt and Roman Stefanski should get more credit than they often do, too.

Children’s theatre is a key strand in this industry, not something to be dismissively relegated to the margins.

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