Beneath London Bridge station, in an eerie, slightly damp railway tunnel, lies the Island of Answers – a magical child’s world filled with mermaids, monsters, and fish that talk. The focal point of a new and unlikely children’s promenade show, it promises that anything is possible if you are prepared to unleash your imagination.
“One of the guidelines to making the show was it should be a fantastic children’s pop-up book, and it should have that Roald Dahl feel where not all of the stories are nice, safe, or cute”, explains Alex Byrne, artistic director of New International Encounters (NIE). “We like the stories that are naughtier or cheekier, where things go wrong or when a boy drops his baby brother in the river and he floats away”.
The end product, Tales from the River Thames, is exactly that – thrilling stories with a cheeky twist that literally pop up around its mobile audience. A collaborative project between NIE and Unicorn Theatre, Tales stitches together 600 stories written by 200 primary schoolchildren from across Lambeth, Southwark, and Waltham Forest, tapping into their unfettered imaginations to bring the Thames to vivid, if somewhat unusual, life. The show tells these tales in three-dimension- the audience moving throughout the space as if navigating through the pages of a children’s pop-up book.
“We treat the kids as serious artistic collaborators, and try to stay true to what they’ve written and why – even if it doesn’t immediately make sense to us, or if it seems strange”. This collaboration, Byrne admits, was “borrowed and developed a bit” from a Swiss project he previously worked on called Wolf under the Bed, a stage show devised from 12 stories written by children. “We wanted to work with kids as a sort of creative spur – they write the stories but we use them as our starting points. Inviting them into a very different, installed, decorated, intriguing sort of space and making their stories come to life in a very present-day tactile environment.” Together, the kids and the cast have allowed their imaginations create pure, unadulterated adventure theatre.
Set in a strange underwater environment – the mysterious Island of Answers – the stage design is magic. The Unicorn Theatre is an atmospheric location perfectly suited to these fantasy stories, and there’s even a cabin boat, a pirate pub, and a whole host of secret chambers to keep the children entertained. “The tunnel used to be wine vaults”, Byrne tells me, “so we start quite gently and then the cast gradually guide you through the different chambers as the stories just pop up all around you. There are smells and atmospheres which are usual in an old railway tunnel, but which you wouldn’t get in the theatre”. Suffice to say, kids and even adults alike leave open-mouthed in wonder.
For Byrne, asking the children to write stories about the Thames was a way of understanding their London. “It has that transformative, mysterious wilderness that I wanted them to imagine”, he explains when I ask why he chose the river as his inspiration. “The river is the life and the reason for the city being here. It’s the river that brought the world to London and London to the world. Nowadays, it’s hidden in the city in a way that it didn’t used to be. We go over or under it on a daily basis but we don’t really go on it any more”. Yet it’s always there, the beating life force of our capital that’s rich in creative potential – especially for young children. Speaking enthusiastically about what fuelled the kids’ imaginations, Byrne points out the far-ranging influences of everyday culture. “One girl even wrote us a very beautiful story based exactly the plot of Titanic, which we haven’t used but it was a great story that she knew, that she told us, and she told it brilliantly”.