Andrew Eaton-Lewis: The advantages of watching children's theatre online

Kids commenting on the action can be part of the fun, but sometimes you’d prefer the performer not to hear it

Gemma Soldati in The Adventures of Sleepyhead

My seven-year-old is not happy. “Do we have to look at the back of people’s heads?’ he complains. Then, a moment later: ‘Is it going to get lighter?’ Well yes, I say, the stage lights haven’t come up yet, and also yes to the heads because this show is partly filmed from the back of the auditorium.

In this column last week I was fretting about the shortness of my attention span while watching theatre online. Evidently I have the patience of a saint compared to my children. We make it through ten seconds of Something in the Water: For Kids (an Adelaide Fringe award-winner currently available via Assembly’s Showcatcher site) before they start loudly critiquing it.

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There are advantages, it turns out, to watching children’s theatre online. One year I took my daughter to see a Fringe show I was reviewing about the first dog in space. ‘THIS ISN’T VERY GOOD!’ she loudly barked about 20 minutes in. She was right, as it happened (I gave it two stars) but still, EVERYONE CAN HEAR YOU. Of course, children commenting on the action is part of the joy of live children’s theatre, but it’s also reassuring to know your mini-critics can critique as loudly as they like without causing a scene. Online, you also avoid the pitfalls of taking a child to a show who is clearly too young for it. Something in the Water is recommended for children over eight, but judging by the level of toddler noise throughout at least a couple of families missed the memo on filming day.

Anyway, my eight-year-old daughter thought Something in the Water was ‘amazing’ and gave it five stars. I liked it too. Created by self-described queer theatre company Scantily Glad, it’s based on performer SE Grummett’s experiences of coming out as trans, but you wouldn’t know that from watching it (there is also a grown-up, presumably more explicit version). The children’s version is a tale of superheroes, giant squids, and gender stereotyping, in which our hero has to pretend to be a ‘normal human woman’ to survive, a journey to which all of us struggling to pass as ‘normal’ human beings can surely relate. An early sequence where ‘Grumm’ takes us through the gender stereotypes with which advertising still pummels children – girls pretty and passive, boys tough and adventurous, etc - had my son and daughter wide-eyed and earnestly discussing the unfairness of it all (‘especially for girls’, as my son thoughtfully put it). It never gets overly earnest though; later on Grumm transforms into a squid and saves the world by plugging a giant hole in the ocean. My daughter keeps asking to watch it again, high praise given that it’s competing for her attention with CBeebies and Netflix.

If your kids are slightly younger I can recommend The Adventures of Sleepyhead, an anarchic show by Gemma Soldati about holding on to childhood imagination, also online. A trained clown, Soldati had all three of my children howling with laughter with a skit about how every grown-up has a moustache, and the sequence in which she uses Russian dolls to explain childbirth is a joy. Every few minutes Sleepyhead falls asleep, the lighting changes, and she dreams of being Queen Elizabeth or a wrestler, before jolting awake again with a cry of ‘Did I miss it?’. ‘It’s almost time to grow up, but not yet!’ she repeats at various points throughout, like a more self-aware Peter Pan.

It still didn’t stop my son heckling. ‘But she’s not going on an adventure,’ he complained. He had a point. Doing comedy skits while dressed as a pillow is not an adventure in the usual sense, and arguably Soldati never quite gets round to a plot. But it’s as much of an adventure as most of us have had in lockdown, so a show for our times perhaps.

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