Work for family audiences is often chock full of imaginative theatricality and silliness and fun, and that’s part of what drew us into making that work in the first place, and of course also because we started our own family (Noah and Finn, now 3 and almost 1 respectively).
There’s nothing like sitting through bad children’s theatre with your children to galvanise you to make something better. And while our latest show The King of Tiny Things does have lots in it for the very young - a deceptively simple plot and a highly visual style combining spectacular and dynamic circus with stunning puppetry - there is genuinely something in there for all ages. The story follows two little girls, sisters Jeanne and Chrissie, camping out in the garden for the first time and fearful of what the darkness holds. But they need not fear for a tiny winged creature - the magical King of Tiny Things appears and leads them on a moonlit journey introducing them to a series of insects and creatures in need of their help, each created using a different circus discipline (a juggling slug, a contortionist caterpillar, a trio of acrobatic baby bats). An adaptation of the book (of the same name) by celebrated children’s author Jeanne Willis and illustrator Gwen Millward, it’s an enchanting story but by no means sanitised dealing, as it does, very directly with ideas of death and loss.
While both the book and our production have a happy ending, the premise provides rich pickings in terms of exploring some more complex and sophisticated themes around fears. There are simpler fears of the dark and creepy crawlies that we hope in a small way to overcome - one of the great themes of the book is an environmental one, re-educating young audiences to champion insects not despise them. And there are other fears - fear of change, fear of growing up, fear of the other.
Poppy and her son, Noah
The great thing about using circus disciplines to create insects is that there is an imaginative leap but not very far - a performer with 6 stilts and wings really does look a lot like an oversized daddy long legs, just as a performer in a sleeping bag with orange juggling clubs attached to her head does actually look uncannily like a giant slug. But rather brilliantly the imaginative leap goes the other way too - when those same creatures sing about feeling rejected and unloved as a sluggish adolescent, or unconfident because their legs are the ‘wrong legs’, we reinterpret their insect characters as ciphers for young girls and guys growing up, going through changes. Perhaps the biggest change of all is for our caterpillar, struggling with the idea of his impending metamorphosis, who goes through a beautiful transformation in coming out as a butterfly. Some of the symbolism and metaphor will of course be lost on the younger audiences but there are layers of storytelling to resonate with older children, teenagers and adults.
It is our tendency, as a company led by a director and designer, to build this kind of rich and symbolic narrative layering into all our work - particularly our circus work - because the artform is so visually potent. And I think it’s really important that young audiences are really challenged with work that makes them think about themselves, about the world around them, work that makes them take some imaginative leaps. But the risk of course is that you then forget about the real littlies and make something a bit… well obscure.
Noah has also been a constant sounding board for the development of the songs in the piece - every time the composer sent me a new song (of which there are 10 in the show) I would sing it to Noah after his bedtime stories and observe his reactions. He now knows them all so well that he’ll ask for new lyrics and I think when he comes to the full show he’ll probably sing along word for word! At the end of the first week of rehearsals we even did a showing to his preschool class which was hugely illuminating in teaching us what they get most excited about - not always the intricate and beautiful moment of hand balance but often someone simply being pushed around the stage in a wheelbarrow!
So while there are stunning sequences of highly skilled circus and some profoundly moving moments exploring our fears of growth and change, there’s also a good share of slapstick and silliness. But we shouldn’t underestimate even the very young in terms of their appetite for darkness and complexity - we get many a bedtime conversation about death and in our image obsessed culture it’s more important than ever to tell stories on stage that empower young people, and young women in particular, to feel confident and happy in their bodies and with their life choices - as the eponymous King sings at one point ‘The world needs slugs and butterflies, the worm and ladybird’. Whether you read it literally as a way into celebrating our natural environment, or more symbolically as a chance to accept and embrace your own fears of being a slug amongst butterflies, or even simply as some spectacular and diverting circus, I hope we’ve made a show with something in it to make everyone’s hearts and minds fly free.
The King of Tiny Things runs as part of the Udderbelly Festival at the Southbank Centre between 11th and 13th July before touring to Dorset, Hull, Salford, Worcestershire, Stockton-on-Tees, Greenwich, Leeds, Doncaster and Bristol.