While cinemas have been offering parent-and-baby screenings for some time, the West End has been slow to catch up. The Stage’s features editor Nick Clark took his six-month-old to a history-making performance of Emilia
Babies’ development stages are often marked by their ‘firsts’. The first time they roll over. The first steps. The first gurgled words. Now add another key milestone: their first West End show.
History was made last week at the Vaudeville Theatre on the Strand, as 173 babies, all under 12 months, went to see the play Emilia. It was the first West End parent-and-baby performance, which the theatre announced with the call to arms: “Let them roar.” And roar they did.
Many things will be taken from this pioneering step. The joy of new parents seeing an acclaimed West End show, the actors who gave it their all and the producers who realised it could work and will have learned valuable lessons to make it even better. Above all, everyone will remember the sound.
The noise rolled around the auditorium from curtain up to the final jig. It hummed and swayed. It enveloped everyone from those sitting in the seats to the performers on stage, and the technicians calling the show.
To give a sense of the experience, think of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and the all enveloping sound of the vuvuzela. Matches would play out – with pockets of cheering here and shouts there – all to the unerring background drone of the plastic trumpet. And so it was in the Vaudeville – the sound never stopped, though it changed frequency and volume. A shout from the stage, a dance or bright lights, and it felt like the tiny audience members had taken a breath in.
Talking to the actors – shattered and elated – afterwards, Jackie Clune, who played a variety of roles including Eve, said: “I wasn’t expecting that level of noise,” and Clare Perkins, playing Emilia Three, said the hubbub was “playground-level”. You got the sense that none of them would change it, though.
All of this started with a tweet. Actor Gemma Goggin asked if there was a relaxed performance as childcare responsibilities made it impossible for her to see the show. Emilia’s writer Morgan Lloyd Malcolm replied saying she would babysit. This sparked an idea among the show’s four producers – Nica Burns, Eileen Davidson, Eleanor Lloyd and Kate Pakenham – for the West End’s first ever dedicated parent and baby performance. Not a show aimed at babies, or a relaxed performance, or even an edited highlights package. The full two-and-a-half-hour story of Emilia Bassano, a woman obscured by history who may have inspired William Shakespeare and was a brilliant poet in her own right.
Chatting with Burns in the Vaudeville’s seats before curtain up, she called it an “adventure – we feel like we’re in the Wild West”. No one had any idea how it would go.
Cinemas have long put on parent-and-baby screenings. It gives adults a way to see new films in a space where they didn’t have to fear their baby screaming. When the UK Cinema Association last checked in 2017, a third of its members – including chains such as Cineworld and Odeon – offered baby-friendly screenings.
Doing it in the West End was a different story. “We had to really subscribe to it. This is a pioneering performance,” Burns said. Everyone had to be up for it, the front-of-house staff, the technicians and the actors, and ultimately “we decided to embrace it”.
Babies come with a lot of equipment, and Frank Matcham did not design his theatres with the under-ones in mind. A total of 182 adults saw the matinee with the 173 babies – a sellout, as each parent was given an empty seat next to them. There they were in slings, on mats, bouncing on knees or on shoulders in the aisle.
Arriving at the Vaudeville it was clear this was no normal matinee. A traffic jam of buggies waited outside, as the front-of-house staff scurried to run each new baby wagon up five flights of stairs where they were stored. There were 152 pushchairs in all.
Inside, everything was managed chaos, but spirits were high. Darting up the stairs, the American Bar had been transformed into a baby-changing room. Four wooden changing stations stood ready, with open nappy bins alongside.
Entering the auditorium, there were babies laid in the aisles, toys, muslins, bottles and footballs. One mum said she had learned about the show from Facebook, another from her NCT class, while a third from the Guilty Feminist podcast. “This is so cool,” she added. The excitement was like a first night, with a crackle of anticipation. And like a first night, nobody was in their seats 10 minutes before curtain up.
The most theatrical event my six-month-old had been to before this was a class with people playing live instruments and blowing bubbles in the babies’ faces. Narrative drive was minimal. This was another level. After tearing his gaze from the oxblood ceiling, and before threatening a little wobbly, he was transfixed as the curtain came up. The lights! The sounds! The smells!
Perkins started and the noise level built. Above the general cacophony, the youngest Emilia was strong, her plight clear. My lad was loving it.
This is a glorious, loud, fourth-wall-breaking, musical show – with glorious baby-based ad-libbing throughout. It worked with the babies, and the plot was clear – though for those following the finer points of Lloyd Malcolm’s script, microphones or captions would have been a useful addition.
Our young lad had remained fairly still, but as Emilia railed against the shackles of society, he began to fidget. The back arched and he was off. As our heroine stormed the stage at the Globe, he was inconsolable. That was, like many theatregoers, until he was fed.
The actors gave it their all. Clune blasted on to the stage as Lord Thomas Howard with the exhortation: “Babies stop crying, a very important man is coming in”, which prompted gales of laughter. Though the babies didn’t listen.
The play is rounded off by an extraordinary call to arms. “Listen to us. Listen to every woman who came before you,” Emilia Three says. “Listen to every woman with you now. And listen when I say to you to take the fire as your own.” And, do you know what? They did. For a brief, glorious moment, the babies went silent. Just for a few seconds, but it was enough.
At the end, there was glee. Conspiratorial looks were exchanged – it had been draining, but worth it. We’d made it through with no major issues. It’s the sort of look that fellow audience members gave each other after seeing both parts of Angels in America in one day. The mum next to me said she would definitely go to another parent-and-baby play.
Meeting the actors backstage, they too had the look of a company that had come through something together. “It’s a gift,” Clune said. “I found it very emotional.”
For Sophie Stone, whose characters included Lady Margaret Clifford, it was like being back at Shakespeare’s Globe, changing pitch and tone as planes passed overhead. She added: “Just because you have babies, it doesn’t have to become a pantomime. This shows it can be done.”
For them, different scenes took on different nuance – not just the two with childbirth, but the death of an infant, which is normally played to silence. “I enjoyed playing things differently,” Sarah Seggari, who played Lady Cordelia among others, said. “It was so in the moment.”
On Twitter, where this all started, parents wrote of their joy. Joanne Ferguson said: “I’m a weepy, inspired, fired-up, fabulous mess after this afternoon’s special performance of #Emilia – don’t think I’ll ever forget it. So many moments where I just held on to her a little more tightly #LetThemRoar”.
Let’s hope other producers follow suit and we hear more roaring in the West End soon.