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2017 01 In a Pickle (RSC and Oily Cart)

In a Pickle features a tactile set where children can touch and feel aspects of the drama

CHILDREN’S THEATRE MAGAZINE FEATURE: from Mold to the RSC, how Oily Cart helped to transform children’s theatre in four decades of innovation and creativity

Harry Mottram spoke to Tim Webb from the theatre company that has pioneered theatre for the under fives since the 1980s to today 

Keeping the attention of small children can be a challenge in the theatre which is one of one of the reasons why theatre for pre-school children didn’t exist much before the 1980s. At the time Tim Webb had worked previously with small children and knew they could be drawn into the world of theatre in the right conditions.
He said: “Back then there were party entertainers, and children under five were welcome at all sorts of shows but there wasn’t theatre created especially for them. There was a prevalent view that children under five were too young to go and see a structured show. They wouldn’t have the attention span, they wouldn’t know which end of the room to look at or they’d be going to the loo all the time.

2017 01 Oily Cart Little Balloon

Oily Cart staged Little Balloon in recent times

“Max Reinhardt and myself knew that if you went about it the right way and found the right language and kept things moving and varied with different techniques and allowed the children into the show and you let them comment and take part then you could easily hold the attention of an audience of under fives for 50 minutes to an hour.”
Oily Cart started 35 years with its original founding team still at the helm. Tim Webb, Claire de Loon and Max Reinhardt started the company in 1981, but shortly after that branched out to create shows for children and young people with PMLD and autism, as well as their original target audience of children aged 3-5. Together they have created over 80 original shows, which have toured nationally and internationally.

2017 01 Oily Cart Red Woman

The Red Woman was a drama staged by Oliy Cart

In a Pickle is loosely based on William Shakespeare’s late romantic play The Winter’s Tale originally published in the First Folio of 1623. It features themes of exile with the wronged love child Perdita brought up by shepherds. The play turns full circle with the protagonists returning to confront the King on the island of Sicily. Plenty then to take as material for the show from sheep and shepherds and from banishment and sea voyages.
Oily Cart’s publicity gives an insight into the unfolding drama: “The adventure begins as we meet the shepherdess and her flock of little sheep, during a party to celebrate the sheep shearing. When she suddenly discovers a lost baby, the audience participate with her on a journey to find the baby and return it to its home. We will sail the salty sea to the mysterious royal court in search of a happy ending. Along the way are many sensory delights including beautiful costumes, enchanting music, lovely perfumes and delightful textures.”
Tim said: “We were fortunate enough to get a commission from the RSC to do Shakespeare for two to four year olds in 2012 during the Shakespeare Festival. It’s based on The Winter’s Tale, but is done backwards.
“We start off with the sheep shearing and go back to the court in Sicily which David Garrick did back in his day. What we say is this is the play seen from the sheep’s point of view because for some unaccountable reason Shakespeare told us about the shepherds and what they got up to but ignored the sheep and we thought that was a grave omission – especially for an audience of under fives.
“It gets quite serious towards the end you meet them at King Leontes’ and you discover the statue of the Queen. It is wonderful to see the concentration in the audience over whether the statue will come to life. It really grips even two or three year olds.

2017 01 In a Pickle blue ship 2

The blue ship sales along in In A Pickle – based on Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale

“What we do is to treat the whole thing as a feast by sitting the children at long tables like it was a party. At first the tables are covered in grass as though you were at a sheep party and then when we make the voyage to Sicily we remove the grass and underneath there are troughs with water with sea shells and fish made of carrots so they can play with the water and they can experience the voyage in a multi sensory way.
“When we get to the court we put on the table tops puddings and pies like a feast. So if you are two or three you experience it as a multi-sensory performance while older children really get into the drama. By then we start to use some of Shakespeare’s language as everyone is relaxed and tuned in. Then you can take them into the heart of Shakespeare.”

2017 01 In a Pickle download of girl in ship

In A Pickle by Oily Cart

One famous stage direction concerning a bear was left out in case it proved too frightening for small children as the sheep are given a larger role in the drama and sheep and bears don’t mix. In the production the performers are Griff Fender, Katharine Vernez, Stephanie Rutherford and Sheema Mukherjee.
Tim said: “We started doing shows for children with complex disabilities in 1988 and the reason was we did that as the head of a special school came to us and asked us to do one of our under five shows. He said the kids were 3-19 and we found that very intriguing.”
It led the company to create shows for those people with complex disabilities. Some had learning difficulties while others were blind or had serious medical problems which meant traditional shows were not appropriate. This ability to create drama for children and young people with complex problems has given Oily Cart a further challenge creatively but one which has led them to take the shows to audiences around the world.
In April/May 2017, it will tour to Brooklyn Academy of Music and Lincoln Center, New York. This is the first time these two organisations have collaborated on a programme for children and their families. Then the show moves to Denver Center for the Performing Arts in Colorado, USA.

Tim Webb, Artistic Director Oily Cart

Key person: Tim Webb, Artistic Director Oily Cart

Selected performances of the play will be relaxed performances which are open to anyone but are particularly suitable for young children with sensory, communication or learning disabilities, and anyone who would benefit from a less formal environment. Audience members should feel comfortable making noise and moving around as and when they need to.
Patrick Lynch, director of In A Pickle said: “I started my career in children’s theatre with Oily Cart and directing for them once more is like coming home. I will be using everything they taught me over the years to make IN A PICKLE a gentle, absorbing and fantastically fun show which will be an introduction to the world and language of Shakespeare, accessible for any age.”
The show has been staged in London in December before it moves on to Wales in January. For more information visit A trailer can be found here:

More features, news, views, reviews and listings at Follow Harry Mottram on Twitter and Facebook.


Sleeping Beauty awoke some unwanted comments in Kent

Sleeping Beauty awoke some unwanted comments in Kent

From the brilliant to the two star shows: our panto review round-up

We take a snapshot of some of the reviews of pantomimes up and down the country from the five star rated shows to a two star review of Maureen Lipman

Peter Pan can fly either side of Neverland – sometimes as a full on drama and true to JM Barrie’s original play as happened in Exeter at the Northcott this season and at the National Theatre in London – and sometimes as a pantomime.
Polka-Dot Productions were behind the show at the Thameside Theatre in December in what Your Sturrock described as “a colourful musical that celebrated London” with X-Factor’s Marcus Collins as the boy who doesn’t want to grow up. The website liked what the show saying: “This was a panto putting all the right bits in at the right time.”
Lincolnshire Live reviewed Jack and the Beanstalk at Newalk’s Palace Theatre and was clearly taken with traditional production describing the principal girl Felicity Skiera as: “a brilliant, confident, thigh slapping Jack who you are rooting for.”


Aladdin in Bath – see our review in the magazine and website

Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard enjoyed Richmond Theatre’s Sleeping Beauty although though the production was a little workmanlike – damned by faint praise. And Hitchings sticks the knife in to Maureen Lipman who plays the wicked Carabosse by suggesting she looks like a glammed up Thersa May in her brown wig. Ouch.
Meanwhile Aliya Al-Hassan in Broadway took a pot shot at Potted Panto saying it was “a budget version of a West End pantomime” with its lack of props – but at lease it was considered by Aliya as “is a fun gallop through the most traditional pantomime stories.”
The Stage as usual had a fairly comprehensive coverage of pantomimes. Sleeping Beauty at Aldershot’s Princes Hall Theatre was a “four star laughter filled treat” and Snow White at Cumbernauld Theatre was “on the button.”
However Aladdin at the Waterside Theatre Aylesbury was “overlong”. That sounds like a reviewer who needs an early night after Christmas exhaustion has set it. Their review of Cinderella at Beck Theatre, Hayes, reported the two star show was “mostly soulless” and they also uncharitably gave just two stars to Glasgow’s King’s Theatre production of Cinderella as “bland and formulaic.” Oh dear.
Aladdin at Market Drayton did better in the view of The Stage with a “cracking” show with a four star review as did Beauty and the Beast at the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds who also earned a four star rating with their “warm, witty and colourful” show.
Five stars are a rarity in panto land but The Stage awarded the unusually high accolade to Sleeping Beauty to the Lichfield Garrick – which just goes to show the Midlands doesn’t fall asleep on the job when it comes to their “simply stunning” panto.
And five stars were also given to Aladdin for their review of Aladdin at the Courtyard Theatre in Hereford which they described as “joyously exuberant.”
The word formulaic seems to be used by many reviewers struggling for a put down in a show that sounds and looks good and has the audience rocking – but somehow isn’t particularly creative or original. If the show is struggling to hit the heights expected then other adjectives are used to help describe the short comings. Hence Peter Pan “never takes off” and Mother Goose is “under cooked.”
There was controversy in Kent when one resident complained to the Stag Theatre that their production of Sleeping Beauty contained “too many black people.”
The production features EastEnders’ Ricky Norwood and the girl group Cleopatra who the resident claimed were “not representative of Sevenoaks.”
The producer Jamie Wilson hit back at the complaint saying: “How many black people is too many? Is one black performer ok? Two? Is it just five that tips you over the edge?”

More features, news, views, reviews and listings at Follow Harry Mottram on Twitter and Facebook.


Tina Williams

Tina Williams

CHILDREN’S THEATRE MAGAZINE – FEATURE: Tina Williams on the struggles, the finances and the triumphs of Pied Piper Theatre (and has a go about cuts to Sure Start)

Tina Williams of Pied Piper Theatre opened up to Harry Mottram about touring, money, Arts Council funding and cuts to Sure Start centres

Since 2008 children’s theatre companies have been hit by cuts to funding said Tina Williams of Pied Piper Theatre. It has resulted in smaller shows, smaller venues, and less new writing.
“Now we’ll only do a show that will sell. Years ago we could tour with new plays but not now,” she said. “Ideally we are a new writing company but it tends to be adaptations of books or new tellings of old tales like Easop’s Fables. Theatres won’t book it if they are not going to be able to sell it.”
Founded in 1984 by artistic director, Tina Williams, The Pied Piper Theatre Company has been creating magical new plays for children for thirty years, reaching around half a million children in the UK, and beyond. In those early days she would act, direct, write and produce the plays taking along with the company her own children who would even appear in the dramas. That has all changed in the straightened economic climate. With cuts to funding staging shows has been fiscally more challenging and risks can’t be taken with ticket sales. A show that doesn’t sell tickets could mean the company taking a fatal financial hit.

Pied Piper are staging Burglar Bill this season

Pied Piper are staging Burglar Bill this season

“Audiences today will go and see things they know,” she said, “so if they see a play based on a book they know they’ll buy tickets. In the past I’ve written a play a with a title that might sound like something they would like to see and that did work for a while but not now.”
“At the moment we have Burglar Bill which is well known and the play is very close to the book. I’ve also just directed Snow Flakes at the Oxford Playhouse,” she said, “and next year I’ve got Brendan Murray’s Hare and Tortoise which won the best play for children and young people in 2012. Last year I directed my own version of A Town Mouse and a Country Mouse which was popular and toured to Asia.”
How does the company make sure it can stay afloat financially with such an uncertain level of ticket sales? The answer is simple: funding.
“We have Arts Council funding, local authority funding, trust funds, and what ever I can get. All these bits of funding added together help otherwise it would be difficult to do a tour with out,” she said.
In the past she has run big tours with trucks carrying the equipment and props, and as many as 14 in the cast, but not now. Plays tend to be for two, three or four cast members in order to keep costs down. And tours tend to be within a two hour drive of the her base in Surrey meaning only venues in the South and South East are considered. Again, the reason is cost as in the past Pied Piper would tour across the country but there is no long the funding for such major ventures she said.
After taking A levels in Westminster, and an education drama course in London Tina became a teacher but she wanted to have a family and to have a career in the theatre. setting up Pied Piper was the solution.

Pied Piper are staging Burglar Bill this season

Pied Piper are staging Burglar Bill this season

Things have moved on since the 1980s when her children would play football in the lunch break with the cast. Today she uses Oxford Playhouse’s casting director to audition actors for the shows which are on a firm financial footing.
“The theatres will approach us for a play and then a fee is negotiated. With an Arts Council funding we have to reach the target of production costs and expenses, so our box office has to match that exactly,” she continued. “If we go over we have to give the money back or if we don’t we have to fund it ourselves with a contingency.”
If there was on thing that the Government could do to help children’s theatre what would it be I asked.

Pied Piper are staging Burglar Bill this season

Pied Piper are staging Burglar Bill this season

“More funding from the Arts Council,” she replied. “If you put money into schools you get better results, if you put money into the arts and it results in a better cultural life. If money was put into the Sure Start Centres which are gradually being cut all over the country there would be fewer social problems. There would be fewer people in prison in the long run as it is proven that if you fund the early years then children will be less likely to get into trouble, end up in prison or end up homeless. But politicians don’t think long term as in the long term they might not be here.”
More details on Pied Piper Theatre can be found at

More features, news, views, reviews and listings at Follow Harry Mottram on Twitter and Facebook.


CHILDREN’S THEATRE MAGAZINE – FEATURE: It’s never too early for theatre

Pic: Unicorn Theatre - Sparkle the puppet ship from 2015

Pic: Unicorn Theatre – Sparkle the puppet ship from 2015

Harry Mottram climbed into his pram and got his nanny to take him to investigate pre-school theatre for tiny tots and babies – just weeks old

It may seem strange to traditionalists that parents would take a babe in arms to the theatre. Not to fall asleep in their laps while they watch a Shakespeare or an Oscar Wilde play, but for a production specifically for babies.
How can you create a play for very young people who are only months old? The simple answer is it has been done for centuries but we call it by other names. Nursery rhymes and lullabies are in effect miniature dramas – while for older children up to the age of four stories read to them by their parents – in which the parent does all the voices of often very simple narratives – is effectively a play.

Tiny Theatre Goers
Theatre companies and theatres with small auditoriums and studio spaces have been staging plays for pre-school children for several years and many artistic directors will point to the fact it is one area of growth. And that’s important as these tiny theatre goers are the audiences of the future.
Derek Aldridge at Swindon’s Wyvern Theatre said pre-school theatre was a big part of what they do. “The majority of children’s theatre we have is for younger children. Pre-school and then up to the age of eleven when they leave primary school. Swindon is a very young town with a lot of families so we have an audience for very young theatre.”
The same is true for all the main cities in the country, with the Unicorn and the Polka in London, The egg in Bath, The Bristol Old Vic and the Tobacco Factory in the same city, plus numerous other theatres having regular pre-school theatre shows as part of their programme.

School Holidays
Why the growth? One of the issues with children’s theatre is the school holidays. That’s when most of the shows are staged which leaves six yawning gaps in the calendar. Yes, some theatres will have weekend shows for children but these are fewer in number. Pre-schoolers on the other hand by their definition aren’t at school and although nurseries and pre-schools have grown in scale most pre-school children don’t go to these all day every day.
For young parents, pre-school theatre is a chance to get out of the house and meet with other parents for a low cost couple of hours in a relaxed atmosphere which benefits them and their child. But hang on, that’s OK for the parents but surely most pre-school kids can’t speak very much let alone follow a complex story with sub-plots and a theme – or can they? Helena Middleton of The Wardrobe Ensemble, and director of Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain at the Bristol Old Vic this Christmas said a strong story is important – even if the children don’t always follow it.

Rehearsals for Little Tim and the brave Sea Captain at the Bristol Old Vic

Rehearsals for Little Tim and the brave Sea Captain at the Bristol Old Vic

“Little Tim does have a narrative, however, the children don’t necessarily have to follow the story in order to enjoy it. We make very playful theatre and as such, a child can enjoy dancing along with the captain just because dancing is fun, not because it’s a plot point,” she said.
“Personally I think a script is important, it provides the structure necessary to then go off course. When we make work for younger years we know that the missing ingredient is the audience themselves, and that you can’t always predict how they’re going to respond, the script provides the solid base from which to work from.”
Tiny tots can be hard to amuse for a few minutes at the best of times so with such a young audience how do you retain their attention in the play?

Helena explained: “A really important part of our work for younger years is working out how we can interact with the audience, so that they feel part of the experience. For example, in Little Tim, all the audience members become sailors and so they help with all the jobs on the ship, and learn the sailor’s song along with characters.
“Additionally, we know that a two-year-old engages with a show differently than a seven-year-old so we think about how each moment can work on several different levels. Whilst a seven-year-old may happily listen to the words, we also think about how the lights and images will enthral someone younger.

Top tips
Ben Fletcher-Watson of HeadshotTheatre is a researcher for young theatre goers and he gave Flossie Waite of Children’s Theatre Reviews these tips for parents when they go to the theatre with a tiny child:
“Book ahead! Baby shows often limit the size of the audience to make sure everyone has a good view, so they sell out quickly. Make sure the show is suitable for your child. Age ranges are usually given in the brochure, or call the Box Office to confirm. Some shows are designed for very specific ages, like birth to six months, so it’s best not to take older siblings to these performances.
“Time your visit right. Most shows are on twice or three times a day, so pick the best time for you and your baby – not their regular naptime! Give yourself plenty of time. You can usually go out if you need to change a nappy, but it’s best to allow time to feed, change and grab a cuppa.”
Other tips include to prepare your child for the show explaining it may be dark and there are strange sounds and music. And not to be afraid but to look forward to the experience of theatre.
For more details on Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain at the Bristol Old Vic visit and and follow us on Twitter and Facebook.


CHILDREN’S THEATRE MAGAZINE – FEATURE: we enter the Dark Star of Swindon to talk schools, pantos and future audiences

Dark star or a motorway service station look-alike? Wyvern Theatre in Swindon

Dark star or a motorway service station look-alike? Wyvern Theatre in Swindon

Harry Mottram met Derek Aldridge of the Wyvern Theatre in Swindon to talk pantomimes and the importance of bringing in new audiences 

It’s been described as The Dark Star, an overture in concrete, a motorway service station look-a-like and a shrine to 1970s brutalism, but Swindon’s Wyvern Theatre is a beacon for live arts in the town with a mixture of productions including a month long pantomime season and regular children’s theatre runs targeted at Wiltshire’s school holidays. At its helm is Derek Aldridge who is in charge of making the theatre pay and of reaching out across the county to young audiences and schools.

The adorable couple: Swindon’s Wyvern Theatre is staging Cinderella this season with Ryan Thomas heading the cast and Victoria Farley as poor Cinders.

The adorable couple: Swindon’s Wyvern Theatre is staging Cinderella this season with Ryan Thomas heading the cast and Victoria Farley as poor Cinders.

“Children’s theatre is very much part of what we do,” he said in an exclusive interview with Children’s Theatre Magazine. “It starts with the pantomime, and then continues through the rest of the year with various productions. And it includes our relationships with schools, as well as a programme for very young children’s theatre as well.”
“Children’s theatre is a very big part of what we do partly because of the demographics of Swindon. It’s a very young town, a very young and family orientated town, with lots of people moving here for work and moving into the new houses. Many have young children who they wish to educate and theatre is part of that.”
Derek entered the industry working at the Palace Theatre in London in his university gap year before taking a job with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group in the marketing department. Stints at Cheltenham’s Town Hall and the Everyman Theatre helped to establish his career in making venues commercially viable before his move to Swindon in 2010 where his role includes the town’s arts centre up the road. He is married with three children and is settled in the area.

Derek Aldridge of the Wyvern Theatre in Swindon

Derek Aldridge of the Wyvern Theatre in Swindon

Traditionally, pantomimes are seen as bankers for many theatres and although some in the industry are snooty about the style of modern pantos, commercial directors insist you do away with them at your peril. For the purest, pantomime has a long history and some of its traditions reach back to the origins of live drama. Just because it is popular doesn’t mean to say it’s not true theatre. And for theatres like the Wyvern they help to keep the cash flow ticking over and attract the audiences of the future. This year the theatre stages Cinderella – that favourite rags to riches story – and one of the most well-known folk tales with its roots in Europe’s distant past.
“Like many theatres our pantomime is our single most important production of the year as those four weeks represent a quarter of the entire year’s audience,” said Derek. “We’ll sell just over 30,000 tickets, and a lot of people come in for the very first time. If you were to stop ten people in the street and ask them what was the first thing they saw at a theatre the majority would say the pantomime. They were either taken there by their parents or they went with their school. It is also interesting to see how many children come along for the first time not really knowing what to expect from live theatre. That’s increasing, as they are used to screen based entertainment. It can be a real buzz, as once they’ve experienced it they change and will want to come again.”
“We aim to cover all ages but the majority of our children’s theatre shows tend to be from pre-school and up to the age of 11 and 12 when they leave primary school. We also look for theatre that ties in with the school syllabus as well and those productions that will also appeal to teenage audiences as well.”
He said the theatre will meet up with schools to see what productions can fit in with the coming school curriculum but also to stage shows that drama teachers want their students to see such as A Christmas Carol and Romeo and Juliet. This was a problem he said as it is difficult to find touring work in commercial theatre aimed at a teenage audience while there is a wealth of shows for younger children.
He has sympathy for children’s theatre companies because of the issue of ticket pricing but there are similar challenges for children’s theatre as there are for adult theatre.
“You are still operating on small margins, you still have all the overheads, actors aren’t cheaper because it is for young person’s theatre,” he said: “Stage management isn’t cheaper, the transport isn’t cheaper, the costs of getting the set on the road aren’t any different than adult theatre.
“The biggest issue which is unique to children’s theatre is the ticket price. The price for a ticket is less because if you are a parent who is forking out for say four children and themselves it can be a lot so we have to be mindful for what we charge.”
“The other challenge is making sure they have titles for the shows which appeal to children of the current generation. Because as we all know from our childhood, there can be fads for things that come and go very quickly. You also have to be mindful of the parents and what will appeal to them as they are the ones who will pay for the tickets. So it is important to have a recognition of the title, with well-known titles such as The Gruffalo, or if the author is famous. Adaptations of Roald Dahl novels go very well along with those by Jacqueline Wilson which have been adapted for stage also do well. The challenges in the main are the same for adult theatre: it has to be entertaining, it has to be commercially successful, and it has to be something of quality.”
For more on Wyvern Theatre visit
And there’s our interview with Derek on YouTube at
Also visit


Swallows and Amazons - 2014 - Credit Simon Annand (13)

Is 2014 the best winter season ever?

It’s a vintage year as the Christmas and Winter season shows for children just get better and better, says Amanda Cornwallis

There’s a feeling in the world of children’s theatre that the genre is moving out of the nursery and into the mainstream as show after show is critically acclaimed.
Swallows and Amazons in Bristol, Scrunch at the Unicorn, Peter Pan in Northampton and Rumpelstickskin in Bath have shown how creative and healthy a state children’s theatre is in.
And yet there are still some duff productions around where complacency is the name of the game and where children are expected to accept the cliched and the ordinary. Mainly it has to be said in panto, that potentially wonderful and quintisentially English form of seasonal theatre. At its best pantomime is uplifting and inclusive in a way no other theatre can be, and it also adheres to the best traditions of British theatre – and would be recognisable to theatre goers a century or two ago due to its mix of styles and zany content.
But our reviewers have seen some dreadful productions and in the past I’ve seen pantomimes which are at best badly directed and at worst a hotchpotch of ideas and and tired routines that have long past their time.
Worst panto of the year seems to belong at the Bristol Hippodrome accordin to Sophie  Jones where a Britain’s Got Talent dog act was thought to be enough to hang together the story of Dick Whittington.
Robin Hood in Poole wasn’t much better where the tired old cliche of a dippy damsel in distress was trotted out to an audience of Brownies as the ideal of feminine heroism. Come on writers of panto – this is 2015 when girls can win the Nobel Prize for championing education in Pakistan or women can run the most powerful nation in Europe without having to hitch up their skirts to look pathetic.
On the plus side dramas aimed at children have seen a continued rise in popularity and in quality. Flossie Waite in London has charted some notable triumphs at the Unicorn such as Scrunch, a show for younger children, and another show for younger children: There was an Old Woman at the Southbank Centre.
The egg Theatre in Bath has consistently created some memorable children’s drama with this year’s Rumplestiltskin being no exception. It’s a full blown piece of musical theatre which takes the basic tome of a fairy tale and reinvents it as a modern rags to riches story of a quick-thinking Miller’s daughter.
As a piece of theatre it’s excellent but it also succeeds by not succombing to easy stereotypes, and pushes the boundaries as it revels in silliness and dramatic values.
Lyn Gardener in The Guardian wrote last week of 2014: “There have been lots of terrific ensembles too: the wonderful young cast in Turfed, a show about football and young homeless people, at Hackney Downs Studio as part of LIFT, the cast of Sally Cookson’s Jane Eyre at Bristol Old Vic (Craig Edwards wins the award for best dog of the year), the youngsters led by rising star Aoife Duffin in Headlong’s Spring Awakening, both sets of PMs and Queens in Handbagged, the performers in Blurred Lines at the Shed, the cast of the mighty Scottsboro Boys at the Garrick, and all the children in God Bless the Child at the Royal Court.”
While Michael Billington listed The Crucible at the Old Vic and The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the RSC in Stratford (two plays A-level students are often called upon to study) in his top ten theatre shows of the year.
Mucky Pup in Bath for me summoned up everything that is best in children’s theatre. Brilliant acting, excellent production values, a good script and above all the show treats its primary school audience seriously with its themes of friendship, bullying, isolation and motherly love connecting through some powerful sequences.
There have been several notable successes including 101 Dalmations at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol and the Elves and the Shoemaker in Bristol.
For many the return of Swallows and Amazons at the Bristol Old Vic has been a highlight. The musical drama based on the novel by Authur Ransome takes the spirit of the novel and reinvents it for the stage, sans Lake District, sans lakes and sans sailing boats. In an inventive and creative production it wins by keeping a tight reign on the narrative, builds the characters into intelligent rounded but still essentially children despite bing played by adults and retains the classic convention of banishing adults from the story and allowing children to run the show.
On a different level Flossie Waite found There Was An Old Woman an entirely enjoyable and creative experince. She wrote at the time of the play at the SouthBank Centre: “There Was An Old Woman is the type of production theatre-makers aspire to. No good idea is shied away from, no matter how tricky – introducing smell in to the space, letting the audience move around a lot, encouraging them to lie down under a duvet on a lavender pillow. The result is a carefully thought-through theatrical piece that is a privilege to experience.”
Meanwhile in Wales at the Sherman in Cardiff Kirsty Alexander writing on the website Children’s Theatre Reviews wrote of The Ugly Duckling: “A beautiful narrative brought to life in an incredible fashion full of delight, friendship and music. One not to miss this Christmas, to escape your standard Christmas carols and Santa Claus.”
The show went on an extensive tour of Wales taking this new and unusual work out into the community – and it seems the Sherman Cymbru excelled itself with Arabian Nights. A show that Kirsty declared to be, “Wonderful, entertaining and charming storytelling, full of magic and mystery, enhanced by a beautiful set.”
Time Out raved about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, The Lion King at the Lyceum, Matilda the Musical at the Cambridge Theatre and Billy Elliot at the Victoria Palace – and so they should. But they also praised Room on the Broom at the Lyric, Jabberwocky at the Little Angel and Cindermouse also at the Little Angel.
I rather liked Grandad, me… and Teddy Too at the Polka – that bastion of children’s theatre in south London – with its gentle charm and inclusive tone that embraced the  generations. And in complete contrast and for sixth-formers the production on Henry IV Part II at the Barbican is another highlight in London.
Oxford’s Pegasus broke new ground with a professional production of The Snow Queen this winter while the Birmingham Rep’s BFG continues to entertain with Teresa Ludovico’s proudction while older children have always been drawn to the cult film Edward Scissorhands with its story of bittersweet love and teen isolation – now a stage show at the Theatre Royal in Plymouth.
It’s an ecclectic mix, but except for the tired pantomime exceptions it really has been a vintage year for children’s theatre.


School kids: the National Youth Theatre's chief has cast doubt on the validity of GCSE drama. This is the NYT's production of White Boy - a play about school gang violence

School kids: the National Youth Theatre’s chief has cast doubt on the validity of GCSE drama. This is the NYT’s production of White Boy – a play about school gang violence

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. Amanda Cornwallis 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.


Curiosity: the play about an autistic boy triggered a movement to be more inclusive in the theatre

Curiosity: the play about an autistic boy triggered a movement to be more inclusive in the theatre

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.”


On Broadway The New Amsterdam Theatre staged a production of the Disney version of the story last year. This is Adam Jacobs in the lead role. Photo: Dean Van Meer.. Below a poster for Aladdin in The King’s Theatre, Edinburgh this Christmas

On Broadway The New Amsterdam Theatre staged a production of the Disney version of the story last year. This is Adam Jacobs in the lead role. Photo: Dean Van Meer

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

What’s the most popular panto this winter? Amanda Cornwallis 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
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.

Cinders in Bath Dani Harmer takes the lead role

Cinders in Bath Dani Harmer takes the lead role

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.

Top spot: Aladdin is on in Edinburgh and morre than 50 other theatres in the UK - each a different version

Top spot: Aladdin is on in Edinburgh and morre than 50 other theatres in the UK – each a different version

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.

On target: Robin Hood is on in Newport in Wales

On target: Robin Hood is on in Newport in Wales

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.


Children's theatre champion: Lyn Gardner. Pic: The Guardian

Children’s theatre champion: Lyn Gardner. Pic: The Guardian

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.


Swallows, dalmatians, mice and spindles

Rumpelstiltskin - the egg theatre's Christmas Show 2014 - (ref2) crop

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.

Pirates swallows-830
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.

Brrr: the graphic used for the Christmas show at the Ark in Dublin

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.

Grandad: the Polka has opted for a season long play about the connections between generations

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.


Why aren’t children afraid of 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.

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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