Many many many years ago, when my eldest was a tiny thing, I stood in a queue in an American shopping mall to “meet” Arthur, an aardvark off a children’s cartoon show. The queue was long and the other mothers were spiky, all eager that their little treasure have the best possible moment with Arthur. Unable to stand the tension, the frantic woman in front of me shouted to the girl managing the crowd, “will Arthur be signing autographs?” I will never forgot the sequence of expressions on the young handler’s face. From initial shock to bewilderment and then slowly, slowly, deep, deep pity. “Ummmm” she replied, speaking very calmly as if to an accident victim, “you are aware that this isn’t really Arthur. It is just a store employee in a costume.” Deep breath. “And he is wearing really big furry paws, so I don’t think he can hold a pen.” I dined out on this story for years. Yet, with each telling, I knew, in my heart, that it was only a very thin barrier keeping me from falling into this kind of insanity.
As the years went on, and I had more and more children, I found myself willingly attending “performances” of children’s shows. Dreadful things they were. Always shockingly expensive, loud, chaotic and the audience was filled with screaming babies, exhausted parents and utterly disinterested nannies. It was awful. Even the slightly more reputable billings were terrible. We once attended a startling truncated version of Wind in the Willows where the theatre was stifling hot and all the children around us seemed to be suffering horrible and unending flatulence. My younger son began breathing through a straw. “I don’t want to taste anymore farts,” he whimpered. I knew there had to be a better way. And as if by decree, I discovered the Unicorn Theatre. A beacon in a storm. A soft landing at the end of a rope. The answer to my prayers. As you start up the staircase at The Unicorn, a tile on the floor reminds you that children don’t need to be coddled with the boring and unchallenging. “Don’t worry your kid is fine,” perfect ethos for this escape from the mundane.
What the Unicorn does best is taking famous, difficult or complicated stories and honing them into a sizeable (60 min +/-), engaging performance with none of the patronizing, saccharin, everybody’s-a-winner attitude prevalent in most children’s theatre. And the actors treat the material with respect. Because of this, the audience, even the very young ones, are involved. One performance I attended was for those children who aren’t usually encouraged to go to the theatre, for reasons of mental or physical disability. It was amazing to watch and listen to their reactions to what they saw on stage. Delight and awe. And any shrieks or grunts or calling out only enhanced the show, such was the sensitivity of the actors. Beautifully done.
The first performance we saw at The Unicorn was Cinderella. Not the Disney Cinderella where everyone winds up happy at the end and the cruelty at the beginning is mild. This was the good stuff. Complete with cut off toes (neat use of streamers) and gouged out eyes. We were hooked.
We’ve seen a brilliant Othello done in filthy American hip-hop. Very glad the grandparents couldn’t understand a word. Reworkings of Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus and Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale held us spellbound. I took my older two to a wonderfully thought-provoking piece for young adults entitled Pim & Theo. Pim Fortuyn (politician) and Theo van Gogh (filmmaker) were both murdered in their home country of Holland by extremists (animal rights and Islamic, respectively.) The play puts them together, post mortum, their wounds still visible, to spend eternity mulling over and discussing what their deaths mean to a free society “Does a tolerant society tolerate intolerance?” being the key question. No easy answers, no glib solutions. Just solid food for the mind and soul.
The story of Henry V, with red balloons as soldiers, all crumpling latex when killed in battle. And most recently, both stories in the Greek season. Minotaur, done in the round with many of the younger audience as noble youths. And My Father: Odysseus. A set littered with modern day toys, hip hop at sometimes earsplitting volume, with a fantastic use of ketchup at the end. What isn’t to love.
Theatre. Real, engaging and so very very good. In an hour. The only childish thing about Unicorn is the ticket price. Take the kids. They’ll be fine. And you deserve it.