It starts like a thriller: a woman stalks a room with a gun; another woman enters with a pram and a young teenager; brisk, on edge, she yanks the child’s head down by the neck and issues a stark warning, to be quiet and stay in her place. The atmosphere is unnerving, and it’s only by slow degrees that the reality – and comedy – of the situation emerges. The child is a dog. The baby is a doll. The adults are kids, their parents friends since university, trapped in a Cornwall house on a rain-sodden holiday. But the image of those actions, the feeling of suspense, the violence of the warning remain. Because this is what is always expected of children, even now, with all the Victorians dead: be quiet, be good, don’t jump on the furniture. Wait for a future you know is coming, but you don’t know what it will bring. Stay in your place. I said, stay in your place.
(Pause in the writing to buy tickets to see this again. I know I shouldn’t, in that everyone who can should see it, and the more people see it twice the fewer can see it once. But those kids and that dog know a thing or two about living, and loving, and being brave, and genuinely caring about others, that I need to hear again.)
The adults are ill, dying of cancer. The adults are already dead. The adults are divorced, remarried, kissing in broad daylight – ewww! The adults have gone down the pub. The adults can’t be bothered to come when called, to involve themselves in play, to explain the hard things. Some mothers only think about themselves and put their own things first. The dog becomes a kind of nanny, like in Peter Pan, because the adults are refusing to grow up but the children are too young to look after themselves; she’s not allowed to climb on the bed, except when she is, because it saves an adult climbing the stairs. The dog speaks: that’s rough the world this is the world that is us.
This is the world that is us.
The adults are killing the bees, or letting them die, or too busy kissing in the shop – ewww! – to care about the bees, and when the bees are all dead there will be no food for anyone. The adults always keep us in the dark.
(Pause in the writing to confess how much I am those parents. Shouting up and down the stairs instead of making the effort to close the distance between myself and the kids. Going on holiday with them fully intending to get away from them. Scorning their shopping lists – Haribo, sugar puffs, a spear gun – instead of seeing the funny side. Noticing and complaining about the mess before showing interest in the creativity that occasioned it.)
There are four children: Nigel, Lucy, Bart and Joy. Nigel’s dad has married Bart’s mum and his sister has refused to come on the holiday. Bart is trying to be friends with them but Lucy keeps calling Nigel a numpty and as for Joy, never was a person more inaccurately named. Lucy runs through the adult relationships like the gossip columnist for a red-top newspaper. Joy lies on her bed and worries about her sick mother and snips lines into paper and a row of people emerge, all holding hands. Nigel listens to hearts through his stethoscope but can’t make anyone feel better. Bart sometimes sees his dead father in the corner of his eye, a glimpse of a wisp of a dream. They sing Radiohead’s Creep together and we cry, we cry.
Tim Crouch’s writing is like that string of paper dolls: gossamer layers, falling open, each one interconnected. The shape of a person, the shape of a life, so simple in outline – and not simple at all. We have no say in what we do, complains Lucy. To some extent that’s true for the adults too.
(Pause in the writing to reflect on the ways in which the children on stage are also my children. My son cackling as Nigel and Bart square up for a fight, barely bumping shoulders before running away to dive under the duvet: I would do that, he says. My daughter, just like Lucy, always the one who tells the other children what the play is going to be about and who’s going to play what role. Exasperated by the plain-sight faults of her parents, sharp-tongued in reprimand, keenly alert to the injustice inherent in the hierarchies of age.)
There is the play that Crouch has written and directed, in which children played by adults muddle along together, trying to understand each other’s emotional outbursts, secret fears, moments of frustration, quiet desires – same as their unseen parents, same as the adults who are acting children but also, in some essential way, being themselves. This play is complex and nuanced, slippery and sly, frequently hilarious, densely poetic, often bewildering to my children, but pleasingly a challenge to their powers of deduction (it starts like a thriller, remember). And then there is the play within the play, also written and directed by Crouch of course, but with an entirely different tempo, aesthetic, narrative thrust. Performed this time by actual children, who have one by one stepped into the adult actors’ places, it bursts with colour, adventure, noise, vigour, the stage sprouting glittering stalagmites and stalactites (designers Chloe Lamford and Camilla Clarke have an absolute field day), giant insects amid towering flowers, this gorgeous place where the bullies stop bullying, the sick get better, the bees are saved, and everybody listens. That’s the key thing. Everybody listens.
This is the world that is us, says the dog. We can choose to make it dour and rainy, difficult and riven. Or we can play.
(Pause to gaze lovingly at the bundle of fur on the kitchen floor: a puppy, my puppy, absurd, trusting, joyful. Her pure and simple love. Soft brown eyes always saying:
Beginners is on until 15 April 2018 at the Unicorn Theatre. Click here for more details.