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CHILDREN’S THEATRE MAGAZINE – FEATURE: they’re posh, bad but gone wrong – why aren’t children afraid of theatrical pirates?

Pirate and children 2014 001

Are pirate captains really posh boys gone wrong? Harry Mottram sets sail to investigate the unscary world of pirates and children

Shot, stabbed and made to walk the plank. Poor pirates. Abused by children from the moment they appeared in print and outwitted ever since. Peter Pan ran rings around Captain Hook, while Jim Hawkins shot Israel Hands at point blank range in Treasure Island, and young Nancy Kington and Minerva Sharpe were more than a match for Bartolome the Brazilian, in Celia Rees’s Pirates! novel.

Pirates are the lovable baddies who for all their bluster and colourful dress are beatable. They make the same mistakes of all baddies. Their arrogance and bluster gives the young protagonists a chance to trick them into mistakes and eventually beat them. OK, younger children may be scared of them at first, but secretly they are no more than pantomime villains.

Confrontation: Jim Hawkings (Bobby Driscoll) meets Long John Silver (Robert Newton) in the 1950 movie of Treasure Island

Confrontation: Jim Hawkings (Bobby Driscoll) meets Long John Silver (Robert Newton) in the 1950 movie of Treasure Island

But there’s something else: they represent a sense of freedom, adventure and escape. We are of course talking about the traditional 18th century pirate portrayed in Treasure Island, Pirates of the Caribbean and fantasies such as Peter Pan. Today’s pirates of the Somalian coast who butcher, blackmail and extort don’t quite fit the criteria, despite the fact they are barely distinguishable in commercial activities from the tricorn hat wearers of another age.

Double act: Christian Bale and Charlton Heston in Treasure Island (1990)

Double act: Christian Bale and Charlton Heston in Treasure Island (1990)

If there is one characteristic that binds fictional pirates together it is class. Despite their desperate image they have all been well educated. It’s just they’ve gone wrong. In Peter Pan we have a posh villain in Captain Hook who is “never more sinister than when he is most polite, and the elegance of his diction, the distinction of his demeanour, show him one of a different class from his crew…” Long John Silver is rather more down to earth but nevertheless is equally aloof from the sea salts who make up his band of mutineers as the coxswain tells Jim Hawkins: “He had good schooling in his young days, and can speak like a book when so minded…” And in Arthur Ransome’s Missee Lee, the eponymous female pirate is a frustrated Latin scholar who has ended up as a buccaneer by accident.

Sword fight: Peter Pan out wits Captain Hook in the Disney cartoon version of JM Barrie's novel

Sword fight: Peter Pan out wits Captain Hook in the Disney cartoon version of JM Barrie’s novel

Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean attempts to convince us he’s a rough sort but his dandy manners and affected deportment were clearly no stranger to silk as a child. Children aren’t afraid of the mincing buccaneer. They love him and his one liners. He’s the cheeky kid who out smarts the teacher and almost gets away with it. The authors’ subtext in all of these pirate yarns is a warning to children who think they can be naughty and get away with it. Poverty, prison and crocodiles await, even if the writer gives them a get out of jail free card so as to keep the possibility of a sequel alive.

Pirate girl: Nancy Blackett played by Celia Adams (left) in Bristol Old Vic's version of the Arthur Ransome novel Swallows and Amazons in 2010 squares up to Titty played by Akiya Henry

Pirate girl: Nancy Blackett played by Celia Adams (left) in Bristol Old Vic’s version of the Arthur Ransome novel Swallows and Amazons in 2010 squares up to Titty played by Akiya Henry

Fictional pirates of children’s literature have another more pertinent purpose – to be brought down a peg by their nemesis: children . Whether it is Nancy Kington in Celia Rees’ Pirates!, Oliver Finch in Sid Fleishman’s The Ghost In The Noonday Sun, or even Nancy Blackett in Arthur Ransome’s Missee Lee, the young protagonists are full of self-confidence, resourcefulness and intelligence. All are ideal children who we’d all like to have as our own or can identify with. It’s another subtle message from the writers: be good and with a bit of pluck you can defeat baddies.

Below is the official trailer for the 1990 film version of Treasure Island that had a young Christian Bale as Jim Hawkins and Charlton Heston as Long John Silver:

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FEATURE: Twitter accounts to follow of producing companies

Ugly Duckling Production_Mark Dawson Photography_DSC_0609

Travelling Light is an innovative company creating theatre for children and families. This is from The Ugly Duckling staged at The Tobacco Factory. Pic Mark Dawson

Towards the end of 2014, Flossie Waite and her colleagues put together a list of children’s theatre-related Twitter accounts to follow on her website https://childrenstheatrereviews.com/

Last year they updated the list as the numbers have grown. The list includes individuals, venues, companies, festivals and organisations that are creating, supporting, presenting or writing about theatre for young audiences. And it keeps on getting longer as more people take an interest in the creative and long neglected genre. Here is part one of that ever increasing list – fully updated since last year by Harry Mottram:

Producing companies
@A1000Cranes A Thousand Cranes was co-founded by artistic directors Kumiko Mendl & Vicky Ireland. The company aim to bring the ‘stories, traditions, art forms and artists of Japan’ to children’s theatre in the UK.
@floodsofink When we first encountered Floods of Ink in 2014, it was hard to believe they were an emerging company, as their work was already so accomplished and polished. A few years later, and Floods of Ink are continuing to create high-quality work for young people, whether their audience are under six or teenagers.
@CWheelsTheatre Award-winning company Catherine Wheels have toured across the world, including to New York, where Sex and the City star Sarah Jessica Parker described show White as ‘the best 40 minutes of my life’.
@feveredsleep Fevered Sleep’s artistic, surreal tweets are always a joy. The company make brave, experimental, challenging new work in performance, installation, film, publication and digital art.
@tuttifruttiprod tutti frutti work with acclaimed playwrights like Mike Kenny and Emma Reeves to create new shows with original scripts that are both entertaining and relevant to their young audience.
@theatriolo Theatr Iolo want to welcome babies to the theatre at 6 months old, and continue to create work that will engage and excite them for the rest of their life.
@oilycart Oily Cart create multi-sensory, immersive and highly interactive productions for very young children (aged 6 months – 6 years), and for young people (aged 3 – 19) with profound and multiple learning disabilities, who have an autism spectrum condition, or who are deafblind.

Oily Cart's In a Pickle with the RSC brought a Shakespeare play to life

Oily Cart’s In a Pickle with the RSC brought a Shakespeare play to life

@hullabalootweet Theatre Hullabaloo, based in the North East, make, tour and promote high quality theatre for young people, who they consider the most important audience of all. They also produce the annual TakeOff Festival.
@TCLive Theatre Centre have been touring new writing to venues and schools around the country for over 60 years. The company aim to encourage youth activism and empower young leadership through the arts.
@20StoriesHigh Our first experience of 20 Stories High was their 2016 co-production with Theatre-Rites, The Broke ‘N’ Beat Collective; even now, we can’t stop thinking about it. The Liverpool-based company make theatre with and for young people, producing work that is honest, political and challenging.
Facebook: hetfiliaaltheatermakers The multi-layered, entertaining work of Het Filiaal, who are based in the Dutch city of Utrecht.
@KOPERGIETERY Kopergietery is actually a children’s arts centre in Gent, though they tour their unpredictable, zany, beautiful work outside of Belgium. We came into contact with them at the 2016 Edinburgh International Children’s Festival.
@ZooNationUK Watch a ZooNation production and your face will hurt from smiling. Responsible for the first ever hip hop dance production on the West End, the company often adapt fairytales and children’s books using their own high-energy, humorous, imaginative style.
@PetitsTheatre Les Petits Theatre Company is the children’s arm of the acclaimed Les Enfants Terribles. Les Petits adapt children’s books, both new (David Walliams’ The First Hippo on the Moon) and old (Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland).
@Freckle_Prods Jennifer Sutherland, co-founder of the multi-award winning Scamp Theatre, recently launched Freckle Productions. The new company will continue to focus on productions for children, young people and families, but with a broader output of work: as well as stage adaptations, there will be original and emerging tales, ancient stories, and explorations of science and the environment.
@tl_theatre Bristol-based Travelling Light Theatre Company have been making highly visual, story-led theatre for young audiences for over 30 years.
@birminghamstage Since 1992, the Birmingham Stage Company have produced over 80 productions for adults and children. Most recently, these have included popular adaptations of the Horrible Histories series, of Roald Dahl’s books, and David Walliams’s recent releases.
@2_ndhanddance Second Hand Dance keep children central to their creative process, working with young people to develop and play with ideas for their shows.
@TurnedOnItsHead Turned On Its Head create interactive theatrical experiences for the very young, with their productions encouraging and offering opportunities for children and adults to engage and play together.
@wrongsemble Wrongsemble pride themselves on creating shows accessible to everyone, ‘from the young of passport to the young of heart’.
@Papertaleshows Papertale is the spoken word theatre company led by Rosemary Harris. Papertale’s lyrical productions confront important topics, from gender identity to asylum-seeking.
@reallybptheatre Really Big Pants Theatre Company pull each performance (and pair of big pants) out of their huge travelling trunk. Often tied to educational themes, their productions aim to complement the primary school curriculum.
@_oldsaw Old Saw create productions from their base in Northwest Iceland. Recent shows have been for very young children, like Meadow aimed at ages 3-6, and Duvet Day, for babies and toddlers aged 0-18 months.
@frozentheatre Frozen Light Theatre Company was created by two friends who met at university and went on to develop their own form of multi-sensory theatre for audiences with profound and multiple learning disabilities.
@bigwintheatre Key to Big Window Theatre’s ethos is creating work that is accessible to all, culturally, financially and geographically. They also collaborate with local practitioners, venues and companies in order to promote and develop theatre within the East Midlands.
@PiedPiperLive Another long-standing company is Pied Piper Theatre, who have been producing plays for young audiences since 1984. While originally much of Pied Piper’s work was new writing by Artistic Director Tina Williams, the company also tour new adaptations, like the Janet and Allan Ahlberg classic Burglar Bill.
@TravelledC Travelled Companions create original shows for young audiences; they perfectly pitch their engaging productions to meet children at their level.
@filskittheatre Filskit, a trio of theatremakers, have been using multimedia technology (in particular, projectors) to create high-quality children’s theatre since 2009.
@TheatreLovett Irish company Theatre Lovett create imaginative, fun, surprising and daring productions for young audiences.
@thewidders Widdershins Theatre tell fairytales, folk tales and myths from around the world using puppetry and quirky props.

Running Wild by Air Theatre with Ava Potter as Lilly with Oona. Photo Johan Persson.

Running Wild by Air Theatre with Ava Potter as Lilly with Oona. Photo Johan Persson.

@TheatreAlibi Theatre Alibi draw on a variety of art forms to tell their stories, with recent productions including puppetry, animation, film, photography and music.
@GomitoTheatre Gomito Theatre is a collaboration between an ever-changing collection of artists. With each performance, the company aim to bring an all-age audience of story-lovers together.
@pinsandneedles0 Pins and Needles Productions have gained praise for their stellar adaptations of Raymond Briggs’ work – in their review of The Bear, The Guardian said ‘move over War Horse, this polar puppet is magic’.
@Bamboozlenews Bamboozle Theatre create multi-sensory theatrical experiences for young people with moderate to profound learning difficulties, and young people with emotional and behavioural difficulties.
@HorseandBamboo Horse + Bamboo is a puppet and mask company that have been creating theatre for almost 40 years. As well as touring their work, the company host a programme of productions, workshops, an annual puppet festival and more at The Boo, their venue in Lancashire.
@ATTtweet Action Transport Theatre put children at the heart of their creative process; each of their productions is a result of this collaboration.
@wriggledance Wriggle Dance Theatre create interactive dance performances for young children and their families. Community outreach and engagement accompanies every production, to reach and introduce new audiences to.
@StarcatchersUK Starcatchers is Scotland’s National Arts and Early Years organization, specializing in theatre and creative experiences and activity for children aged 0-5.
@hellolittleblue Little Blue Monster have taken over from Blunderbus. East Midlands company that create shows based on popular children’s books, like Oliver Jeffers’ Lost and Found, and their own original stories
@LongNosePuppets In just over a decade, Long Nose Puppets have created four puppet shows for children that have been performed in all sorts of places, from the National Gallery to Downing Street.
@ReplayTheatreCo Based in Northern Ireland but touring internationally, Replay Theatre Company create theatre for young people under the age of 19. In 2015 they created the world’s first ever BabyDay, offering over 80 events across venues in Belfast
@scamptheatre Scamp Theatre produce adaptations of hugely successful children’s literature; most recently, a collaboration with Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler has seen Scamp bring The Scarecrows’ Wedding and Stick Man to the stage.
@KazzumArts Kazzum create ‘playful theatre in unusual places’, whether that’s a festival, a shopping centre or a car park.
@TheatreRites Theatre-Rites have been creating experimental theatre for children since 1995. With their ‘object-led’ theatre, Theatre-Rites have produced site responsive pieces as well as toured shows nationally and internationally.
@garlic_theatre Garlic Theatre create imaginative, sometimes surreal, highly visual puppet theatre for young audiences and their families.
@ripstoptheatre Created by theatremaker Zannie Fraser, Ripstop Theatre initially produced shadow theatre for young audiences, though their work has since developed to include other forms of puppetry and storytelling, always expertly designed.
@WizardPresents Wizard Presents’s hugely successful adaptations of Michael Morpurgo’s books Why The Whales Came and I Believe In Unicorns have been seen by tens of thousands of children all over the country.
@fishngame Fish And Game, the Glasgow-based performance company, create shows ‘straddling theatre, live art and visual art’. Over the past few years, their polar bear-inspired shows have toured both nationally and internationally.
@TellTaleHeart Tell Tale Hearts devises and tours accessible participatory theatre for children that combines installation, puppetry, performance, music and projection.
For more theatre companies and children’s theatre visit

https://childrenstheatrereviews.com/ 

and http://www.harrymottram.co.uk/?page_id=884
Please note these were Twitter accounts were correct on 31 Dec 17

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The RSC have a number of events for schools this year Pic Rob Freeman

The RSC have a number of events for schools this year Pic Rob Freeman

Must see dramas for literature students this spring

You can’t beat live theatre when studying a text for school says Harry Mottram. And he offers some productions of interest to schools this spring

Students studying drama as part of English Literature GCSE and A Level courses have a number of shows to see at the theatre this year.
Yes there’s been a row about whether students even need to visit a theatre to see a live play or whether they can make do with a live screening instead, but unless the school is on an island in the middle of the Atlantic it should be possible for the teachers to organise a trip to see at least one of the plays being studied.
The AQA board list the Shakespeare plays of Othello, The Taming of the Shrew, Measure for Measure and The Winter’s Tale as part of the Love Through The Ages theme, while OCR include in their section on pre 1900 drama the plays of Coriolanus, Hamlet, Measure for Measure, Richard III, The Tempest and Twelfth Night. And Macbeth is on the reading list for the IGCSE this year.

Othello is being staged at the Unicorn Theatre in London

Othello is being staged at the Unicorn Theatre in London

The National Theatre in London is staging Macbeth this spring (and it will also be screened live in May) at the Olivier Theatre running from February 28. While they will also have a production aimed at younger children of A Winter’s Tale at the Dorfman Theatre from February 14-28. Macbeth is also being staged from February 22 to April 7 at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol and there’s also a production of the Scottish play at the Royal Shakespeare company in Stratford-upon-Avon from March 13 to September 18 with a live broadcast on April 11.
The Unicorn Theatre in London has a production of Othello on from February 3 – March 3, especially created for children. The theatre said: “Inspired by William Shakespeare’s great tragedy, this is a modern, funny and inspired play by Belgian playwright Ignace Cornelissen (Henry the Fifth, The Hunting Lodge) that brings the story of Othello to life for younger audiences and reflects on the nature of relationships, friendships and how our flaws and feelings can blind us to the truth.”
Hamlet will tread the boards this spring with a production by the Royal Shakespeare company that will be taking a tour of the play to Salford, Plymouth, Hull, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Northampton between January and March 2018, before transferring to London’s Hackney Empire between 6 and 31 March 2018. In contrast to the blood and near madness of Hamlet the RSC’s production of the comedy Twelth Night continues in Stratford-upon-Avon until February 28th, with a live screening on St Valentine’s at cinemas across the country.
Some of the texts listed by the examination board are novels and these are often staged – albeit in adapted or abridged versions although they can help a student with the interpretation and themes of the book. George Elliot’s The Mill on the Floss is being staged by the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School this summer with a tour of venues across the South West including the Tivoli in Wimborne on July 5th. Meanwhile in Guildford there’s an adaptation for the stage of Jane Austen’s Persuasion by theatre6 at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre And Mill Studio. By their nature adaptions condense a novel, especially the lengthy 19th century novels listed as core texts but nevertheless they are perfect for discussion and analysis afterwards.
Meanwhile in East Kilbride in Scotland Studion 32 are putting on Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls from March 14-17 at the arts centre in the town while at the other end of the British Isles Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire is playing at Southampton’s Nuffield Theatre from March 23-31 and June 5-16. This revival of the classic play on the list of texts for study this year is co-production with Theatr Clwyd and English Touring Theatre, it will be directed by the winner of this year’s Sir Peter Hall Director Award, Chelsea Walker. Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House gets a make-over with an updated version on Thurs 17th May at the Arts Centre in Bromsgrove with an adaption by Theatrical Niche. It may not be the exact text of the play but again with the main theme and driven protagonist the play is ripe for discussion and helps to bring to life the drama for students in the 21st century.

A streetcar Named Desire is on in Cambridge

A streetcar Named Desire is on in Cambridge

London’s National Theatre has a production of Translations by Brian Friel from May as Ian Rickson directs a cast which includes Colin Morgan in the powerful account of language and nationhood. And another modern text taking a look back at this country’s colonial past that is on the list of texts to study is Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker. A production of the drama set in Australia will be on tour at the Nottingham Playhouse, New Wolsey Theatre Ipswich, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Theatre Royal Stratford East, Sheffield Crucible and Birmingham Rep from March 9, 2018 – June 2, 2018 with the Ramps on the Moon company who integrate disabled actors into their cast. The play is a hardy perennial so you’ll find more than one production including those by amdram and student groups on stage this year – so worth doing a Google search for the play along with the others listed by the examination boards.
This is by no means a complete list of the plays that are available to view this year for students but it shows how many are already being promoted as early as last autumn. Local theatre groups often leave promoting their shows until a few weeks before curtain up so it is worth doing a search even quite late in the term. Some of the best productions are those found locally or performed by colleges where youthful exuberance can inject added energy into a production – and of course the tickets are cheaper.
Studying a play in a classroom can seem dry but seeing it performed live will bring it to life so it is vital to organise a trip to see a show even if it means a long journey and a late night. Writing in October 2013 for the Guardian Lyn Gardner said: “Last week I sat in the Unicorn theatrewatching Ellen McDougall’s superb production of Henry the Fifth, a play which responds to Shakespeare’s play of the same name. Like Shakespeare’s play in which the chorus asks the audience to ‘piece out our imperfections with your thought’ so Ignace Cornelissen’s play is a call to arms for the imagination, getting a young audience to imagine a different world, a different story for themselves, an alternative narrative and to empathise with another point of view.”
And there are other benefits of a visit to a theatre. From experiencing the arts first hand, to visiting a world they may not have entered previously to giving ideas for future projects and even opening up career choices seeing live theatre is impossible to match. YouTube, the cinema and live screenings have their place but exposing children who are studying a text to live theatre can have a transforming affect.

For more children’s theatre visit http://www.harrymottram.co.uk/?page_id=884

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Game changer: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night

Game changer: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night

The curious incident of the relaxed performances: how one play changed theatre

Something has happened this year at theatres. Sharon Diamond comes out of the chill-out room to investigate relaxed performances

There’s a curious story behind relaxed performances and it all started with a play. So what’s a relaxed performance and why are so many theatres putting them on? A good definition of what a relaxed performance is comes from the Lighthouse in Poole, the community’s arts centre. They describe it thus: “During a relaxed performance the environment is specifically adapted for theatregoers with autistic spectrum conditions, those with sensory, communication or learning difficulties and anyone else who would benefit from a less formal environment.” “There is a relaxed attitude to noise, the lights in the auditorium remain on low throughout the show, sudden loud noises are softened and audience members are free to leave and re-enter the auditorium at any point. Additional staff members will be on hand to assist with seating and access around the theatre and there will be a chill out room, where a space is made for anyone needing a bit of quiet time before or during the performance.” “Many families with autistic children or children with sensory and communication needs are reluctant for a variety of reasons to attend public theatre performances. Relaxed performances are a fantastic way for families to experience theatre together and for the children to benefit from an environment where the performance is adjusted to reduce anxiety or stress.”

Many theatres have chill-out rooms or an area where children can calm down after stressing out with their parents or carer. The egg theatre in Bath has a padded booth area with a window so the child can still see what’s going on. Relaxed performances began in earnest last year when the National Theatre’s production of The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time at the Apollo Theatre in London, was modified for people with autism, learning disabilities and sensory or communication needs. The story was ideal in one sense as the novel and play is about a boy with autism who is determined to solve the mystery of the dog’s demise.

The production was the first West End performance in a pilot scheme from the Prince’s Foundation for Children and the Arts, the Society of London Theatre and the Theatre Management Association. The full programme has been rolled out this year with the plan for these relaxed performances to become as standard a part of a show’s schedule, just as signed performances are for the hearing-impaired. The scheme also caters for people of all ages with special needs which opens up a whole new audience for the theatre but also for the cast. Autistic children can find crowded foyers, sudden noises and unexpected music and changes in lighting disconcerting so these muted performances can make them less challenging and help them to come to terms with the world in general.

The Curious Incident play went on to win seven Olivier awards, including best new play and best actor for Luke Treadaway as the central character, Christopher, a 15-year-old with autism. The author Mark Haddon, said of the special performances:“It’s a brilliant idea. It is important to emphasise that this is about inclusivity, not targeting. These performances are for anyone who would benefit from a more relaxed performance environment, including people with an autistic spectrum condition, sensory or communication disorders, or a learning disability.”

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Curtains for drama?

Lyn Gardner from The Guardian reacted with passion when she heard that the NYT’s Paul Roseby suggested GCSE drama be scrapped.

Harry Mottram reports Last month The Guardian’s Lyn Gardner asked whether GCSE drama should be scrapped after the National Youth Theatre’s Paul Roseby said it was an irrelevance. I remember watching a youth production of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good, at the Bristol Old Vic a few years ago, when one of the female convicts says during their rehearsals for the play they are staging “I love this.” Lyn Gardner had exactly the same experience when she saw the play in a different production.

She wrote in her blog: “Those three little words sing loudly to the transforming power of art and of theatre in particular, and of the immense value of taking part.” When Paul Roseby said GCSE drama is an irrelevance he is missing the point. Speaking at the Artsmark Conference at the British Film Institute in London in October he said GCSE drama classes should be taken off the curriculum because they are “irrelevant” and the subject is seen as “soft and easy”. The chief executive of the NYT, said that school drama classes should be scrapped and its teaching integrated into other subjects’ lessons instead. The Stage reported him saying: “That’s not to say I don’t believe in drama in schools – absolutely not. Actually [I would like to see] more than there is currently. But in terms of GCSEs, I’m not so sure it really works.” If that was to happen drama would all but disappear from senior schools as it would need enthusiastic teachers to stage drama classes and productions as schools value GCSE results as far more important than devoting time to voluntary extra curricular activities.

Gardner recalls watching a rehearsal for Romeo and Juliet at a school. She said: “The young student playing Romeo was really terrific, bringing the character vividly to life. I briefly spoke to him afterwards. ‘I just love this,’ he said, his eyes shining and it made me smile because it reminded me of Wertenbaker’s play. His teacher told me that it was only through studying drama GCSE that the boy had come out of his shell, and that he now had ambitions to go on to drama school. I hope he made it. “I thought about that boy reading the comments from Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre who was reported in the Stage as having dismissed drama GCSE as irrelevant. Try telling that to the boys like the one I saw rehearsing Romeo.” She has a point.

It’s the experience it gives children that is important – just as sports can give a child a chance to shine, or art to express themselves, drama allows budding playwrights and directors, stage managers, lighting technicians and designers to come to the fore. Communication and confidence are two of the aspects of drama that can give children such a boost – two of the attributes that universities, colleges and employers most seek in young people. Roseby is an idiot. He plays into the hands of people who want to make cuts in arts education and continue the arguments that the three Rs, science and modern languages are the only thing of importance in a child’s passage through school. Patrice Baldwin, chair of National Drama who represents drama teachers reacted strongly to his argument.

She told The Independent that: “She said: “It is vital that drama is a GCSE subject. It has to be seen as a proper subject worthy of a proper qualification or it will die out in schools. We don’t want drama to be seen as a lesser subject that earns you a Mickey Mouse badge.” “To have someone like Mr Roseby, who works in the cultural sector, proposing something that would add to the push to get rid of specialist drama teachers is very concerning. I fear that he is being self-serving and hopes to open up opportunities for theatres to run activities in schools.”

Interestingly Rosebury left school with very few qualifications but joined up with the National Youth Theatre paying his way by selling clothing in London. His attitude to formal education and clearly GCSE drama was likely to have been formed in those early years. No formal training, no college and no grants as far as we know has suggested (if his own website is to be believed) that his own career route is the one everyone else should follow. It’s an attitude that follows the confidence gained from being head boy at his senior school.

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What is the most popular panto this Christmas? It’s all about a Syrian teenager

What’s the most popular panto this winter? Harry Mottram takes a look at the top three and their origins

At the turn of the century Snow White ruled supreme alongside Cinderella as the two most popular pantomimes. This year both ladies of the stage have been usurped by the cheeky thinking-on-his feet-urchin better known as Aladdin as the most popular character this Christmas in professional pantoland with 54 professional productions listed by the website www.its-behind-you.com. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is in third on 44 with Cinders in a close second on 48 – although these three are by far the most popular titles in the seasonal family genre. In fourth place is Jack and the Beanstalk (32) who is never completely out of favour with another perennial Peter Pan in fifth on 25.

Beauty and the Beast comes in at sixth with 22 productions across the country with Sleeping Beauty on 20 in seventh holding off the challenge of Dick Whittington, Gloucester’s favourite fortune hunter on 14 in eighth position. Making up the top ten is the Wizard of Oz and Robin Hood with just four apiece – although of course Robin always shares his production with the Babes In The Wood. Mother Goose (3) and Puss-in-Boots (just one pantomime) seem out of favour, as does Hansel and Gretal with only two productions that tell their gingerbread story. Treasure Island also registers only one show – normally a panto that does well, Finding Santa, Jack Frost and Little Red Riding Hood are also headlined for one outing this year. Aladdin is a strange mixture of Far East and Middle East set as it is in China despite it being a sort of Arabian folk tale.

As such it’s a hybrid with aspects of the culture of Syria and Iraq blended into the back streets of a Beijing complete with a Chinese laundry where Aladdin’s brother Wishy Washy works. There’s also Aladdin’s mother Widow Twankey and of course Princess Jasmine whom Aladdin is destined to marry along plus the evil Abanazar who is desperate to discover the secrets of the magic lamp. Aladdin is the classic rags to riches story of the son of a poor washerwoman who overcomes the odds to clinch an unlikely rich wife. This season Aladdin is played by Anthony Costa of the boy band Blue at the Kings Theatre in Portsmouth, while in Cardiff Arabian Nights is another take on the stories that includes one about the boy with the magic carpet and his eye on a magic lantern.

There are also another 50 productions to choose from across the country with a variety of settings and styles. In reality Aladdin was not originally a teenager from Syria or Iraq but was from China. Due to the lack of geographic knowledge of storytellers in Medieval Arabia there quickly developed a fusion that made China very Arabic. The story has been constantly changed, reimagined and updated over the centuries which the authors of pantomimes in particular taking liberties with the names, details and settings of the story. The rags to riches story emerges originally as a Middle Eastern folk tale although from the beginning it blends elements of the Far East with more homegrown cultural references. Although the story has always been thought of as Chinese in its various retellings it has moved progressively westwards with a distinct flavour of Baghdad and modern day Syria and Iraq. It was included in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (The Arabian Nights) in the 18th century by Antoine Galland as stories from the East became fashionable as the British and French empires opened up trade routes to the east.

It first became a pantomime in Britain in 1788 by John O’Keefe for the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden and with its magic carpets, Genies, lamps and cast of comedy characters has been in the top ten ever since. The story’s strange blend of China, Syria, Arabia and Iraq has allowed constant changes to be made to leading characters and the plot. Despite its Chinese origins there’s no hint of Buddism or Confucianism with most of the characters Muslim in name. One possibility is it originated in China and travelled across the continent with Mongolians and blended into the cultural of Turkestan and filtered down into the Middle East from there. Cinderella may have been over-taken by the Syrian-come-Beijing-come-Baghdad laundry worker but her origins are just as mysterious. Sometimes referred to as the story of The Little Glass Slipper, Cinderella emerges from central Europe as a folk story in the 16th century although certainly dates back into the mists of time as a story of good triumphing over evil with a persecuted heroine at its core.

In older versions of the story she exacts terrible revenge upon her step-sisters but the Brother’s Grimm cleaned up some of the sharper aspects of the narrative and when pantomime took the story to its heart the main motifs of the story had been settled. The glass slipper, the hunt for its wearer, the impoverished father and his selfish and cruel daughters and the final scene when the once put-upon Cinders marries the Prince. Also thought to have come from central Europe is Snow White or Schneewittchen tends to be thought of as distinctly German – mainly due to a version of the fairy story being published by the Brothers Grimm in 1812. Like Cinderella the story has distinct features all of which have been retained by panto versions. There’s the magic mirror, the poisoned apple, the glass coffin, the wicked queen and of course seven dwarfs. All pantomimes have certain standards that give them a universal appeal, meaning the various stories have a similar feel with an evil villain who is roundly hissed, a romance, a pantomime dame and of course a happy ending.

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Lyn Gardner on children’s theatre

Just over a year ago Guardian theatre blogger and author Lyn Gardner wrote about the importance of children’s theatre based on a talk she gave at the Unicorn Theatre.

Amanda Cornwallis agrees with her She’s possibly the only high profile advocate of children’s theatre in the media with her talks, tweets, reviews and critiques of the business of professional drama for a young audience. Lyn Gardner graduated in Drama and English at Kent University, founded City Limits before joining The Guardian. She’s also written several children’s novels including Into the Woods (2006) and Out of the Woods (2010) as well as the “Stage School Series”, based around a young girl named Olivia attending Stage School.

In her regular column in The Guardian she explained why children’s theatre matters in a long and passionate blog. It was actually an edited version of a speech she made at the Unicorn Theatre in London on being presented with an award for outstanding contribution to children’s arts by Action for Children’s Arts She wrote: “It often feels as if every review or article about children’s theatre represents a tiny triumph. It is a tiny triumph, over the kind of outmoded and ignorant thinking that dismisses work for children and ignores it on the grounds that children’s theatre is not worth reviewing, that somehow something intended for children cannot possibly be of the same worth as a Tom Stoppard play or King Lear. What rot. “As someone who has dipped my toe into writing novels for children, I’m still astonished by how many well-meaning but misguided people ask: “So when are you going to write a proper grownup novel?”, as if writing for children – surely the most challenging of all audiences – counts for nothing. Just as children’s literature of the last 15 years has flourished, so theatre for young people has often not just matched theatre for adult audiences but often surpassed it. “Children’s novels get a meagre amount of review space, but when it comes to writing about children’s theatre, every column inch must still be fought for and over.

This lack of coverage matters because it is always the case that what is reviewed in our culture quickly becomes what is valued in our culture. An absence of reviews about theatre that is made for and with children, and a reluctance by arts desks and editors to take children’s theatre seriously not only suggests that we do not value that particular area of theatre, but that we do not value children and their experience of the world. “It shouldn’t be that way. When the well being of children in the UK is measured against that of other countries we come very low in the league of industrialised nations. Could there be a connection between that and our inability to value and nurture the creativity and imaginations of our children? We worry endlessly about exam results and yet squeeze the arts from the curriculum, so that opportunities to learn an instrument or go to the theatre are not an entitlement for every child, but activities that are only within the reach of the privileged few. As one of the characters in Lee Hall’s The Pitman Painters says: “art is the place where you understand your whole life from.”

If one single child is excluded from art, we are all the poorer for it. “Last week I sat in the Unicorn Theatre watching Ellen McDougall’s superb production of Henry the Fifth, a play which responds to Shakespeare’s play of the same name. Like Shakespeare’s play in which the chorus asks the audience to “piece out our imperfections with your thought” so Ignace Cornelissen’s play is a call to arms for the imagination, getting a young audience to imagine a different world, a different story for themselves, an alternative narrative and to empathise with another point of view. It is a play about emotional intelligence, not IQ or what level you got in Key stage 2. “At a time when the pressures on young people are perhaps greater than they have been at any time since the second world war, and the challenges faced by massive cultural and technological shifts, climate change, and economic collapse are immense, what we need is a rising generation who can use their heads to solve those problems but also their imaginations. Some time ago I heard a government spokesman on the radio talking about raising standards in schools, and making changes to the curriculum and the arts and humanities in higher education so we generated the skills necessary for a successful 21st century society. “Did that mean, asked the interviewer, that there needed to be more emphasis on skills such as maths and engineering? Yes was the reply.

Of course we do need those skills, nobody would argue against their importance. But while we need people with the skills to build – let’s say a bridge – we also need the people capable of imagining that bridge in the first place, or thinking how we could create a very different kind of bridge. Or perhaps asking whether we need a bridge at all. “Theatre, particularly theatre for children, fires the imagination, it gives our children the skills and the creativity necessary to face the world, to understand it and perhaps to change it too. We should value children’s theatre and take it seriously and that means treating it with the respect that we would any work of art including reviewing and critiquing it.” When we discussed starting this magazine many people suggested it was a waste of time as children’s theatre was little more than story telling or pantomimes. To use the words of Lyn Gardner, what rot. Some of the best plays I’ve seen have been for children. Rating a play is notoriously tricky and giving a five star review is rare.

In the past I’ve seen more five star children’s plays than adult theatre and yet I’ve seen far more of the latter. Much adult theatre is predictable and lame – and little more than spin-off entertainment for the grey haired masses who go for comfort drama over quality. With children’s theatre the audience is far more discerning and harder to gain their concentration. They will quickly make it clear if the show is dull or lacking in quality by talking, going to the toilet or texting. This is an exciting era for children’s theatre with new company’s being formed, new areas being explored and new and original scripts being created. Stick Man, Easop’s Fables, War Horse, Private Peaceful, Matilda to name but a few. From tiny audiences of tiny children to West End venues children’s theatre covers a vast range of styles and genres, covering those formative years from the cradle to the sixth-form. And it has to be said in my opinion (and I think Lyn Gardner’s), much of it is far superior to that served up for adults.

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Swallows, dalmatians, mice and spindles

Are pantomimes being replaced by classic stories played staight? Amanda Cornwallis takes a look at theatre that manages without panto dames

Mention family theatre at Christmas and the inevitable dinner party debate about the merits or otherwise of pantomimes takes place. It’s predictable and it’s boring. Anyone would think the only type of show open to the family over the winter holiday period was the panto. Think again. Although pantomimes still dominate the listings over Christmas off most theatres there has been an increasing trend towards staging classic novels and stories as serious theatre productions for children and their families. From Wind In The Willows to straight versions of Cinderella without the panto dames and thigh high leather boots for the principle boy, artistic directors have increasingly sort to shake off the shackles of the ancient and very British genre of pantomime.   Before we go any further I must say I’m a fan of well produced pantomimes. There’s the long held conventions of good and evil, of redemption for the villains, of rags to riches stories and of the moral tone that justice will prevail.

And the addition of song, dance, pathos, comedy, slapstick and stage craft mean that in good pantomimes every talent of the graduates of theatre school are deployed. However for many, the predictable nature of the pantomime can jar, and for many middle-class families in particular the genre is one to be looked down upon. They of course are wrong unless of course the pantomime is poorly put together without any sense of story or narrative and becomes little more than a variety show. Partly because of these factors and for the desire amongst artistic directors for new work and more interesting dramas – and change in the tastes of the British public – many theatres have sort to stage plays rather than pantos from that magic week in late November when the last leaves cling to the trees to mid January when frost and snow sweeps down from the North.   This winter as our cover reveals Bath’s egg Theatre will stage a musical version of the folk story of Rumplestiltskin. However the theatre that’s part of Bath Theatre Royal is hedging its bets with a pantomime version of Cinderella in the main house. Over in Bristol the Old Vic has followed a formula of putting on two children’s plays aimed at different age groups. In the studio they run a drama for younger children (The Magic Elves) while the main house stages a play for the whole family.

This year it’s a repeat of last year’s success of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons – turned into a musical. Interestingly the two leading venues for children’s theatre in London are also both staging non-pantomime productions. The Unicorn has the same policy as the Bristol Old Vic with one show for older children and one for younger siblings. They are The Nutcracker and the Mouse King and for little ones they’ve got The Fourth Wise Man. Polka Theatre in Wimbledon are offering the public a non-panto version of Peter Pan while in tandem they have Grandad, Me… and Teddy Too for the ages of 2-5. For many theatres trying to balance their books the pantomime has traditionally been their banker, with sell-out audiences for up to eight weeks. They also bring in whole families and entire schools – with the panto being the first introduction to theatre for many people. It’s not a bad intro as they always send you home with a chuckle in your heart and song in your head. Yes you can tire of them but for many pantos are Christmas or rather a Christmas treat. However for an increasing number of theatres the straight play is becoming the norm. Even though when we say straight we’re not saying serious. From 101 Dalmations at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol or A Most Peculiar Wintry Thing at the Ark in Dublin, these plays have magic, mystery, drama, song, dance and music – surely the perfect experience for a first visit to the theatre.

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Why aren’t children afraid of pirates?

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Are pirate captains really posh boys gone wrong? Harry Mottram sets sail to investigate the unscary world of pirates and children Shot, stabbed and made to walk the plank. Poor pirates. Abused by children from the moment they appeared in print and outwitted ever since. Peter Pan ran rings around Captain Hook, while Jim Hawkins shot Israel Hands at point blank range in Treasure Island, and young Nancy Kington and Minerva Sharpe were more than a match for Bartolome the Brazilian, in Celia Rees’s Pirates! novel.

Pirates are the lovable baddies who for all their bluster and colourful dress are beatable. They make the same mistakes of all baddies. Their arrogance and bluster gives the young protagonists a chance to trick them into mistakes and eventually beat them. OK, younger children may be scared of them at first, but secretly they are no more than pantomime villains.

Confrontation: Jim Hawkings (Bobby Driscoll) meets Long John Silver (Robert Newton) in the 1950 movie of Treasure Island

Confrontation: Jim Hawkings (Bobby Driscoll) meets Long John Silver (Robert Newton) in the 1950 movie of Treasure Island

But there’s something else: they represent a sense of freedom, adventure and escape. We are of course talking about the traditional 18th century pirate portrayed in Treasure Island, Pirates of the Caribbean and fantasies such as Peter Pan. Today’s pirates of the Somalian coast who butcher, blackmail and extort don’t quite fit the criteria, despite the fact they are barely distinguishable in commercial activities from the tricorn hat wearers of another age. If there is one characteristic that binds fictional pirates together it is class. Despite their desperate image they have all been well educated. It’s just they’ve gone wrong. In Peter Pan we have a posh villain in Captain Hook who is “never more sinister than when he is most polite, and the elegance of his diction, the distinction of his demeanour, show him one of a different class from his crew…” Long John Silver is rather more down to earth but nevertheless is equally aloof from the sea salts who make up his band of mutineers as the coxswain tells Jim Hawkins: “He had good schooling in his young days, and can speak like a book when so minded…” And in Arthur Ransome’s Missee Lee, the eponymous female pirate is a frustrated Latin scholar who has ended up as a buccaneer by accident.

Sword fight: Peter Pan out wits Captain Hook in the Disney cartoon version of JM Barrie's novel

Sword fight: Peter Pan out wits Captain Hook in the Disney cartoon version of JM Barrie’s novel

Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean attempts to convince us he’s a rough sort but his dandy manners and affected deportment were clearly no stranger to silk as a child. Children aren’t afraid of the mincing buccaneer. They love him and his one liners. He’s the cheeky kid who out smarts the teacher and almost gets away with it. The authors’ subtext in all of these pirate yarns is a warning to children who think they can be naughty and get away with it. Poverty, prison and crocodiles await, even if the writer gives them a get out of jail free card so as to keep the possibility of a sequel alive.

Pirate girl: Nancy Blackett played by Celia Adams (left) in Bristol Old Vic's version of the Arthur Ransome novel Swallows and Amazons in 2010 squares up to Titty played by Akiya Henry

Pirate girl: Nancy Blackett played by Celia Adams (left) in Bristol Old Vic’s version of the Arthur Ransome novel Swallows and Amazons in 2010 squares up to Titty played by Akiya Henry

Fictional pirates of children’s literature have another more pertinent purpose – to be brought down a peg by their nemesis: children . Whether it is Nancy Kington in Celia Rees’ Pirates!, Oliver Finch in Sid Fleishman’s The Ghost In The Noonday Sun, or even Nancy Blackett in Arthur Ransome’s Missee Lee, the young protagonists are full of self-confidence, resourcefulness and intelligence. All are ideal children who we’d all like to have as our own or can identify with. It’s another subtle message from the writers: be good and with a bit of pluck you can defeat baddies. Below is the official trailer for the 1990 film version of Treasure Island that had a young Christian Bale as Jim Hawkins and Charlton Heston as Long John Silver: