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Stephanie Street: An audience makes a show – it provides that vital energy

The cast of The Midnight Gang at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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My six year old is in a deep David Walliams phase. Actually, to be more precise, she is in a deep The Midnight Gang (by David Walliams) phase. Over the last couple of months she has consumed voraciously not one, not two, but three versions of it, first on stage, then on the page and finally on the TV over Christmas.

Being only six, I have been her companion through all three versions. And I realised this could be a useful test case of practical criticism on the different forms of storytelling. Of course I had my own ideas, but I wanted to hear from her which she found the most engaging, which moved her the most.

She didn’t give a necessarily straightforward answer. First she said she found the TV version to be the most “real”, which makes sense. She also commented that it had the saddest ending – Oliver Zetterstrom, the brilliant young actor who played Tom (an incredible turn among an excellent cast of children and grown-ups) served up a moment of immense heartache on finally being reunited with his parents, which had me blubbing into my mince pie.

‘When you realise as an audience member that you are part of it, your feelings, swelling into the space’

Then she mused on the differences between the Asian Dr Luppers in the TV version and the white incarnation on stage – although not a shred of the differences she noted were anything to do with appearance (being herself a child of mixed white and Asian parentage). She wondered why one version of the character was so much more anxious than the other and how one version of the character had made her laugh more than the other.

When I probed her on that, she hit on something wonderful. That while she loved reading the book and “having more space for my imagination”, she felt the most things – laughter, fear, sadness, joy – watching it on stage. Again I probed her – of course there was the excitement of the event, the lights going down, staying up late, having to be quiet. But she said something about the actual space, about being far away from the stage, about her feelings needing to be that big “to get across that space, to fill it”. And so she managed to sum up what I’ve never been able to articulate about why I love working in theatre. Out of the mouths of babes, and all that.

The actor in me loves both, but I wanted to do this job to tell people stories from a stage. There is something about the uniqueness of each show, each audience. And although there isn’t verisimilitude in the way the screen offers, it is real – flesh, blood, light, mechanics, there in the same room as the person watching. And when you realise as an audience member that you are part of it, your feelings, swelling into the space, are an integral bit of energy that makes the show what it is, that, for me at least, is what telling stories is all about.

Stephanie Street is an actor and playwright

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