If Larkin just blamed the parents, fucked-up by theirs before, then Monkey Bars by contrast is an outreached hand of atonement, recognising that each and every one of us is partly to blame when misery is handed man to man.
From psychologists to television presenters, teachers to politicians, whenever society tries to address the needs and views of children they do so in adult language which drowns out the child’s voice in a cacophony of political correctness, technical jargon and rampant bullshitting. By giving a group of six to eleven-year-olds the space to speak in safety and crafting this astonishing verbatim piece from transcripts of those recordings, The Dialogue Project’s Karl James and writer and director Chris Goode give us all a hope of understanding what the world really looks like through a child’s eyes.
Monkey Bars is not a piece of theatre that feels compelled to resort to cheap tricks to make an impact. In fact it is honest with its audience almost to a fault, dramatising the initial interview situation so that from the outset we are fully aware that the cast of six adults are speaking the words of children (if the opening image of a man serenading a plate of jelly hadn’t got you there already that is). Yet even putting the children’s words in the mouths of adults seems to be a confession of the piece’s own compromised position within a system where children aren’t taken seriously. The exquisitely sensitive performances are bittersweet in the way they validate the dialogue, and it is symptomatic of the very problem Goode has sought to address that you cannot imagine the piece working so perfectly in any other form. Of course the children know that already, and in just one of the passing remarks that floors you with its insight, they express relief that they’re not being filmed because ‘everyone’s judgey’.
Again and again, the sentiments the children express confront us with the cruelty and absurdity of life. The honesty of the dialogue may reveal how much adults have lost from the openness of their youth, but by staging the dialogue within distinctly adult settings – a first date where awkwardness is soothed by discussion of nightmares or a job interview concerned with what the applicant would do if they were a bubblegum creature – the play has the uncomfortable effect of showing us how little they’ve learnt in return. Yet the overriding spirit of Monkey Bars remains one of hope – what else can be expected from a play which considers stroking a beard to be the pinnacle of adulthood, and where dreams of being a singer are proudly declared, untainted by doubt?
Despite the laughter raised by ambitions of being a cupcake lady or a boy’s ancient incredulity at the girls who ‘act like they are from Essex’, not once does this gentle work belittle its voices. If anything, the piece pokes fun at the seriousness of adults; compounded by Naomi Dawson’s mildly ribbing open-plan-creative-office-space set design with its blocks of bright colours and light cubes on which the monochrome cast perch awkwardly. By contrast, the children’s discussions of matters great and small – war and divorce, half term and sweeties – are portrayed with tremendous dignity, as the actors juggle cheekiness and innocence with moments of gutting vulnerability and emotional honesty.
Laughing through the tears and leaving in desperate need of a cuddle, audiences will hopefully learn the wider value in listening and find Monkey Bars to be the start of a new openness, not just to the thoughts of the young but to everyone. It’s certainly a less drastic course of action than following Larkin’s advice.