Beginners, Unicorn Theatre

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by Laura Kressly

Kids are intuitive. They’re smart, observant and know a lot more about the world than adults think they do. Tim Crouch’s play where adults and children play each other and kids eventually run the show also proves that they aren’t that different from each other anyway. Whimsical design, innovative dramaturgical devices and an unwilling to patronise young people with obvious storytelling combine to create a marvellous and thoughtful piece of theatre for all ages.

Three families go on holiday to Cornwall every summer and share a house for a week. Whilst the adults are at the pub, the kids stay indoors and it rains incessantly – the quintessential British holiday. They play and talk and bicker and awkwardly flirt and ultimately, decide to make their own performance to entertain their parents. This finale is a spectacular mash-up of  dreams, fears and hopes for themselves and  their families.

The story is full of heart, wonder and the absurd imaginings of children’s minds that we grownups learn to stifle. There’s even a talking dog, rendered wonderfully human yet indisputably a pup. But it doesn’t shy away from horrible, adult issues like the ends of relationships and serious illness, and honestly captures how kids view these events. Whilst it’s a little bit heartbreaking, it also reminds us how resilient kids can be, and how much they understand and are impacted by the big things life throws at us.

Crouch blends reality and fantasy across several narrative levels with great effectiveness. The deliberate lack of clarity as to whether the characters we watch are adults or children, and a cast composed of an adult and children set, serves to remind us how similar our wants and needs are, no matter how old we might be. Alice in Wonderland-esque design elements and detailed costume choices enhance ambiguity and draw attention to the joy of discovery and playing make-believe, tapping into the children within all of us.

The whole effect is one of a complex balance of extremes – sadness, frustration, celebration and reflection are smoothly combined with clearly defined creative choices that push the medium to a level of high art. This is what children’s theatre can and should be.

Beginners runs through 15 April.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

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