Guest Blog - James Haddrell on bringing world issues to family theatre

Guest Blog

Having launched our plans for an annual in-house pantomime with 2017's hugely successful production of ROBIN HOOD, we invited James Haddrell, artistic director of Greenwich Theatre (our co-producers on the show with Splendid Productions) to pick a few highlights from this season's family programme...

Having worked with the team at Stantonbury Theatre to bring to the venue’s first ever in-house professional pantomime to the stage, it is evident that there is a huge appetite for high quality family theatre among the theatre’s audience.

It is therefore no surprise that there are so many great family shows lined up for the season – from the latest performance by John Hegley to Rufus Longbottom and the Space Rabbit, the new family musical by the astonishing a cappella company Filament Theatre.

However, one thing that I personally find particularly exciting in family theatre is the introduction of major world issues into family shows – those productions that challenge children to engage with and form opinions about political or social issues that affect the world around them.

As an example, this Sunday The Bone Ensemble bring their show Where’s My Igloo Gone? to Stantonbury. This is a magical, interactive performance about a young girl from an arctic world who starts to see the impact of global warming on her home. We have also brought the show to Greenwich Theatre this season – and the staging in both cases will be very special. The whole performance takes place with the audience on stage, sitting in amongst the set and the actors. Adam Ledger, the company’s co-artistic director, gave a clue as to what audiences can expect. “We like to create a sense of place and make spaces. So, the audience sits within the set, either on the floor on cushions or on chairs. At times, there's a bit of fun joining in, and then one or two people can do things like go into Oolik's igloo. Sometimes, everyone can join in. The action is always very close to the audience - there are times when you can touch things too - and the performers are very good at making everyone feel welcomed and included. Audiences have loved it so far!”

Then, a week later, Stantonbury welcomes emerging theatre company ThisEgg with a special performance of Me And My Bee. The show was one of the stand-out hits of last year’s Edinburgh Festival, which is not an easy thing to achieve at the world’s largest arts festival. When I spoke to Josie Dale-Jones, one of the show’s creators, she described it to me as “a political party disguised as a party party disguised as a show. It encourages adults and children alike to recognise the risk to our planet caused by the ever-increasing threat to the survival of bees. Albert Einstein said that without the bees, humans have 4 years left to live. We rely on bees to pollinate one third of the crops we use as food.”

Whilst it is not uncommon to tackle these kinds of environmental, ecological or social issues in theatre, it is fairly rare to do it in a family show. However, I see no reason why children will be any less able to engage with the issues. Children are not daft. They’re younger versions of us – they have less experience of the world but they are just as keen to interrogate ideas and formulate opinions and that is something that should be encouraged in every part of their development, not just at school. A trip to the theatre can create a life-long interest in a particular topic, and I am sure that whilst children seeing these two shows will certainly be hugely entertained, they will also come away energised and excited about two issues of major importance to our future.

“Kids are smart” Josie told me. “They don’t need patronising. If you have a good show, young people will be just as engaged as older people.”

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