Theatre for children – is there really such a thing? Do we need such a delineation? Or do we all just need to grow up and stop taking ourselves so seriously all the time?
David Walliams’ award-winning children’s book, Mr Stink, potently comes to life on stage at the Seymour Centre at end of this February, for the beginning of year long national tour. Jonathan Biggins directs the CDP production about young Chloe who befriends the local ‘tramp’, Mr Stink. Family, friendship, community, and identity come under the microscope and waft our way in this fun, and cheeky, and human tale. Something’s definitely in the air…
Do you think there is such a thing as children’s theatre, or is it all just one and the same?
I try to approach making children’s theatre in the same way as any other – obviously, there are differences in terms of things like complexity, language or attention span but the essential elements that make something theatrical are the same for whatever audience you’re playing to.
Are there differences when directing and performing for an intended younger audience?
Clarity is the most important thing, and an ability to keep going when disruptive younger siblings make their presence felt in the audience! But with this show in particular we’ve found if we remain true to the characters and the story, the children are engaged. The idea is to keep it moving, and make the sure the audience are coming along for the ride!
‘Children’s’ stories, tales, theatre – whatever the medium – are quite often allegories utilised to discuss greater social and personal concerns. What issues do you see as being at play underneath the humour for this tale of Mr Stink…?!
Mr Stink is about accepting people who are on the margins. Inclusiveness and tolerance of difference is a big theme in a lot of children’s books and plays. And here it’s about taking time to understand homeless people. It’s also a classic Mary Poppins-type story – this time Mr Stink is blown in on the east wind and Mrs Crumb is the one who needs saving! And just like that story, once Mr Stink has brought the family unit back together, he wanders off.
Is the story successful in communicating an awareness and effect on these issues?
I think so. And it’s interesting to see how children respond to other characters in the show. The two school bullies who open the play are given very short shrift by an audience that has obviously been listening to the anti-bullying message that’s been prevalent in schools for some years now!
Toilet humour and the grotesque are elements children have always been openly fascinated with and quite irreverently respond to (and dare I say likewise for adults, just in a more concealed manner). Why do you think this is?
Who doesn’t like a fart joke?!
Having said that, we’ve noticed that some go better than others. When Mr Stink farts in the bath in front of the Prime Minister, even the kids seem to think he’s gone a bit far. But calling the school bully “Poo Poo Bum Brain” is completely acceptable and hilarious because it works on so few levels.
From the likes of Grimm Fairy-tales to Roald Dahl, etc. – it seems to be such an affective and successful formula when approaching storytelling for children. Do you have a theory or take on this?
I suppose it’s because traditionally it’s something that adults don’t talk about in public. Breaking taboos, particularly about bodily functions, gives the kids license to laugh. But it is puzzling that no matter how many times you do it, people still laugh. Maybe it’s because it’s what makes us animals, it has nothing to do with our rational intellectual selves and every now and then it’s nice not to have to think.
Can audiences expect a lot of the humorously foul and grotesque on stage here for Mr Stink?
Not that much. Mr Stink is a very old-fashioned story when it comes down to it, and the thing that has surprised us is that the kids really latch on to the plot. When Mr Stink tells Chloe why he’s been wandering the streets for years, you can hear a pin drop.
So, they’re connected to the emotional elements also?
Raj the shopkeeper has a lot of physical humour but it’s not foul or grotesque, the whole show is quite gentle and draws the kids in to engage with the characters.
A Mary Poppins-type alternate, does the character Mr Stink have a world view or philosophy? If so – what is it? And do you agree with it?
Mr Stink believes in the sanctity of the individual, integrity, compassion and the strength of family and love. He lost his family and has always regretted it and when Chloe offers the hand of friendship, he takes it with gratitude and makes her realise that a home with people who love you is probably the most important thing you can have. What’s not to agree with?
Do you find you have to put yourself in a certain kind of mindset in order to engage with and to direct these idiosyncratic subject matters?
I always try to make the show accessible for the whole family and it’s not just a matter of putting in some jokes for the grown-ups. Kids respond well to seeing their parents enjoy something and even if they don’t get it, if mum and dad are laughing it must be funny. I try to pitch it just above the target age – it’s much more rewarding for an audience if they have to work a little bit, even young audiences. I don’t like theatre that talks down to anyone, no matter how old they are.
Have yourself and the other creatives wafting around indulged in fun and games during the making of the show, or has it all been ‘serious play’?
We’ve had a lot of fun with the Bollywood dancing. Raj auditioned for the X-Factor, and shows off his skills so we thought why not get everyone in the cast involved in a bit of Bollywood to finish off the show?!
Kids – laughter – fun – is that ultimately what it’s all about?
Yes; it’s got to be entertaining or what’s the point? It’s always easier to engage an audience with more serious issues if you’ve already got them laughing. Comedy is the sugar that coats many pills, and puncturing the self-important and embracing outsiders with warmth and affection is what Mr Stink is all about.
My two-year-old daughter enjoys a good fart joke – do you think she’d enjoy the show?!
Two is probably a bit young to be honest. The show is much more than the sum of its farts!
Lastly, but not leastly – What’s the secret to (having) a good laugh?
Having a laugh with a lot of people around you. ‘Nothing like sitting in a packed theatre to get those belly laughs rolling.
Thanking you kindly.
Peter Maple – Theatre Now and Talking Arts
Original publish date, February 13, 2017.