Complicite and the National Theatre turned their big guns on children’s theatre this year, blew up big, but missed the target. What happened?
It is not as though they forgot their ‘A’ game. Both companies did what they do best. Complicite’s Lionboy, at the Tricycle, was a little more minimalist than some of their recent big stage spectaculars, yet this was still physical theatre of great verve and skill. A scene where steel ladders are transformed into the maze-like heating ducts of the evil mastermind’s lair has everything: high-wire tension, heart-stopping excitement. And I’m the last person to praise anything that involves actors waving furniture.
The National’s version of Treasure Island has an astonishing set: a monster-size Chinese puzzle of rotating blocks that turn to create inns, ships and the island itself, with a breathing rib cage of old ship-wrecked galleons.
The shows are spectacular, yet rely so heavily on narration, they end up all show-and-tell and no drama.
This is Complicite’s first children’s show, based on the wildly popular Lionboy novels of Zizou Corder, otherwise known as ace novelist Louise Young and her daughter Isobel Adomakoh Young (then only eight years old: now in her twenties). Treasure Island is also based on a book, of course, Robert Louis Stevenson’s wonderful adventure story. Sometimes the quality of the source material presents it own problems; perhaps Complicite and the National were unable to escape the voice of their novels. But I don’t think this is the problem.
Children dominate so much our cultural landscape; museums have become playgrounds, cinemas are turned over to child-friendly fantasy franchises, Young Adult novels are the big best-sellers. It often seems half the world is just one great big creche. The baby-boomers have done their best to remain teenagers their entire lives. Generation Y have taken it a stage, sticking to the kindergarten and infantalising everything they touch. If Complcite and the National don’t know how to do a children’s show, maybe that is okay. In a perverse way, maybe they should take pride in not quite knowing how to speak to infants.