Features Guest Column Published 11 September 2014

The Owl and The Squirrel

Theatremakers Laura Mugridge and Tom Frankland on their new show Tony and Mike and making work which young children - and their parents - can both enjoy.
Laura Mugridge and Tom Frankland

Photo: Ben Blackall

Our two year old says “Tony and Mike” at least 4000 times a day. His favourite toy is a replica of the puppet squirrel in our show that has been dragged through all manner of unspeakable things and is now missing an ear and a tail. It doesn’t look like a squirrel anymore – it looks a bit like an aardvark in a superhero mask. It’s a confusing toy to explain to other parents.

We didn’t set out to make a play for our son, but in retrospect this is exactly what has happened. When we are performing the show for other families, we feel confident in knowing that it has been approved by ours. Approved over and over again, in a very vocal way, on swings, on buses, in shops and sometimes, embarrassingly, during other people’s shows here at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

We started making the show when our son was four months old. It felt like a quiet, relaxed and gentle way to begin. At this point, parenthood was a bit like owning a potato (a lovely potato) and, most of the time, he would lie quietly in the corner of the rehearsal room on a blanket, staring at a nice radiator.  At this stage it felt important and helpful to be working together. We weren’t at the mercy of anyone else’s working hours and could make sure that the days were structured in a way that worked for us and the potato. We were also able to share in each other’s tiredness and acknowledge when it was time to stop. Of course it wasn’t always smooth and easy, but both parenting together and working together need negotiation, and although we didn’t always get it right, we got there.

As he got older and bigger and more mobile, it became like owning a tortoise, then gradually like being in charge of a tiny drunk clown. This meant that we just couldn’t have him in rehearsals.  The best advice we received when starting a family was to accept help when offered, and working together was made much easier with the help of a close network of amazing friends and family who have stepped in to support our little, busy family.

His presence has certainly informed the work, and us as makers. His energy is boundless and he finds joy and humour in ridiculous and unexpected places. On difficult days, we have learned to channel his joy for the show. We have essentially created a superfan. Yes, at some point, he will learn that other shows exist and are also great, even better, but for now we are enjoying him feeling like this is the best thing in the world. It certainly saves us from watching Frozen over and over again.

As independent theatre makers, we aim to create work that leaves audiences talking as they leave the theatre and we were committed to staying true to this in making a piece of work for families – an often maligned genre. We wanted to see if the idea of “something suitable for adults as well as their children” could be translated as something more than simply jokes that go over the children’s heads.

The subtext of the show is a relationship pushed to the brink and a potential separation. This feels relatively risky in a show for 4 – 7 year olds, but that relationship, which plays out for the adults, is echoed in the relationship between our owl and squirrel puppets, which is a lot bolder.

Tony and Mike is in many respects not a children’s show – it’s for families. Some of the material is complicated for the younger audiences and this has been levelled at us as criticism, but we wanted to create an atmosphere where discussion is encouraged. We don’t want the adults and children of a family to sit separately and we value the conversations taking place during the show of “what is happening now”? and “what will happen next”? At the beginning of the devising process, we were clear that we wanted to make a piece of work that WE would want to see, as parents. That seems like an obvious statement (don’t we always make work that we would want to watch?) but it felt more important this time. On talking to other parents about going to the theatre as a family, the emphasis seems to be upon ‘taking’ their children along, rather than all going together, as a team. We wanted to create something that would make everyone laugh. One of the loveliest things to see in the show is a child getting the giggles because their parents are laughing too.

Tony and Mike will be at Artsdepot on 28th September and the Lyric Hammersmith on 18th October. For further tour dates visit their website.

Related: A baby’s eye view of the Edinburgh Fringe.

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