Michael Coveney: Tiger comes for Tea and Elephantom balloons ahead of Kids Week
Children's theatre in the West End is booming (and ballooning)
Kids Week in the West End lasts a month (August) which is no less a conundrum than Clive James saying, apropos of the Cambridge balls, that May Week was in June. But there it is: a whole month, the 15th annual Kids Week, with a host of events and activities online; a child under 16 goes to a West End show - everything from Jersey Boys and Billy Elliot to Thriller and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time - for free if accompanied by an adult (paying full price) and can also take two other children - on the same transaction - at half price.
The way things are going in the West End, I'd say that Kids Week - which has already enjoyed record sales this year - should last a year. And it would be a much better place for it. I've sampled two of the shows, suitable for three year-olds upwards, David Wood's The Tiger Who Came to Tea (adapted from Judith Kerr's book) at the Lyric on Shaftesbury Avenue, and Ben Power's National Theatre version of Ross Collins' The Elephantom at the New London, otherwise home of War Horse.
It's hard to describe the sensation of sitting in the Lyric on a Saturday morning with a full house of very young children and childish adults going bonkers and singing along with The Tiger Who Came to Tea. One instant black mark for Nimax Theatres, though: no booster seats! My tiny granddaughter, like many other boys and girls, spent the 55 minutes utterly enchanted but also squirming around, on and off her seat, trying to improve her view of the stage.
In Tiger, the show toys with the possibility raised by Kerr that the big orange cat might be Daddy in another guise, and there's a clever pay-off to that. This is traditional - some would say passé - children's theatre, the actors ingratiating to put it mildly, but children are immune to the creepiness of such heavy-handed leering and gurning. They just love it.
"My granddaughter, like many other boys and girls, spent the 55 minutes utterly enchanted"
The high end of children's theatre, and the Arts Council-approved version, is something like Fevered Sleep's Little Universe, an outdoors show about the solar system and atomic particles described by director David Harradine as "beautiful, abstract art for under-fives."
The truth is that children make no critical distinction between a tiger coming to tea and four actors in white coats prancing around with silver globes and serrated laboratory-style scenery. It's the physical, sensual contact in both they appreciate, and they love shouting at the stage.
There's a magical moment in Tiger when the family, eaten out of house and home by the voracious (but very nice and polite) big cat, go for a walk in the night-time to have a meal in a café. They sing a night-time song and the glitter-ball stars light up the Lyric from top to bottom. It is simple. It is corny. But, for three year-olds, it's spectacular nirvana, the promise of caves and caves and days and days of delight.
Phantom elephants join in the fun
The National Theatre's Elephantom, such unexpected billowing, bouncy fun in the temporary theatre (formerly known as The Shed) last Christmas, occupies territory somewhere between Tiger and Little Universe, using another disruptive kitchen arrival (a phantom elephant instead of a tiger) to bond with and bug the little girl of the house.
The great thing here is the barrage balloon mammal, manipulated War Horse style by actors, a floating tusky tumescence with a crinkly trunk, all made of blue parachute silk. The joy at the NT was the proximity to the children of this unexpected giant in their midst; it's harder to create that effect in the cavern of the New London, surely the most horrible theatre in London anyway.
This exposes a major weakness in Finn Caldwell and Toby Olié's production: the whole show is mimed - with a recorded soundtrack imaginatively enhanced by onstage muso Adam Pleeth - and the narrative slack means that the episode of the girl going to Mr Spectral's shop to buy a mouse in a box to scare off elephantoms is incomprehensible.
Does she like the elephantom or not? You never know. Rosie loves the tiger but understands that he cannot be part of her life for ever. Still, the sight of several blue elephantoms dancing on their party night before dispersing to make some other household's life a misery is simply unforgettable.
Cove's caveats in the corner
Stupidest statement of the week was ACE chief executive Alan Davey's, quoted in the Evening Standard as he doled out the grants: "If we get diversity right we get better art and appeal to wider audiences… all organisations will be asked to demonstrate how they will make their work relevant to a wider range of audiences." So much for the Orange Tree, then.
Most surprising came from 26 year-old Joshua McGuire, star of James Graham's Privacy and this summer's Mozart in Amadeus at Chichester, telling The Times: "I've never written anything on Facebook since I first joined… I've never uploaded a picture, I've never written a status, I'm not on Twitter because as an actor you have a responsibility to not broadcast yourself. It's not about mystery; it's just about preserving something because your job is pretending to be other people."