It’s Saturday afternoon and the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond is scented with the Violet Beauregarde smell of bubble gum. I presume this sticky, blue-hued aroma is incidental and not a deliberate part of Sarah McDonald-Hughes’ How To Be A Kid. But then again, director James Grieve’s production is very neatly put together, and McDonald-Hughes’ script filled like a bag of Haribo with references to childhood, so perhaps they really have perfumed the auditorium with Eau de Hubba Bubba.
More likely, it’s emanating from the hoards of children filling the matinee seats. There’s something so pleasing about seeing more children than adults at a children’s theatre show – especially when they’re this well dressed. I’d like to shout out in particular to the girl in gold glittery Doc Marten’s and a bright blue fluffy handbag, plus the kid in the panda leggings (like leggings, but covered in pandas. My jealousy overwhelms me). And all the others who get to watch a play with a mouthful of fluorescent goo or whilst inhaling handfuls of crackly popcorn (if I did that, it would be the start of another ‘think piece’ about inappropriate behaviour in the theatre).
The kids in the audience act in effect as additional evidence for the point of McDonald-Hughes’ play. These outfits, sweets and complete self-possession are a part of what we hope a child’s formative years will be like. How To Be A Kid, however, looks at what happens when the naïve bubble of junk food worship and best friendships forever bursts too fast. Ultimately, it seeks to ask if things can ever ‘go back to how they were before’ after adult worries have invaded tiny skulls and filled them full of real world scary thoughts. It does better describing the first scenario than answering the over-riding question, but that’s not necessarily a fault as its inconclusiveness carries with it an appreciable amount of realism.
Molly is a twelve-year-old tasked with looking after her younger brother Joe when her grandmother dies and her mother is overcome with grief, confined to bed in constant tears. For a while, Molly manages being housekeeper, mother and carer with impressive fortitude. Then, an accidental tumble dryer fire resulting in an injury to Joe is a red flag to the authorities, with mum ending up in hospital, Joe at his dad’s and Molly in care. Grieve’s production cleverly juxtaposes the should-be world of childhood with the actually world by a choreographed scene mashing together the pop music soundtrack with the monotonous chores performed by the kids. Originally as buoyant as a 90s boy band video (there are many parts of this production that looks super fun to perform), the actions become increasingly frenzied, the music starts to slip and slide the way old cassette tapes used to, and the scene, like Molly’s life, unravels before anyone can press stop.
How To Be A Kid is at it strongest in these choreographed sequences and in its other, more illusive and symbolic, parts. When it strives for closure or certainty (as it does too much during its final moments), it loses some of its plausibility. In contrast, the more opaque parts of the narrative, where the story could be coming from the smog of Molly’s imagination, or be factual, acts as delicate reminders of a child’s-eye-view of the world, emphasising how confusing the events happening to the pre-teen must be.
Katie Elin-Salt as Molly is a convincing mixture of gawky vulnerability and passionate pride: the intense early adolescent fear of ever, ever, ever standing out as ‘different’ that leads to her hiding from everyone, including her school bestie, what is happening at home. McDonald-Hughes’ writing stands out for taking its young characters seriously; for realising that as an adult you can never assume someone is ‘just a child’ and therefore too young to be sensitive to their environment. It realises that along with the fluoro-and-fake fur fashion choices there are often labyrinthine minds harder to disentangle than a wad of pink gum wedged in a ponytail.
How To Be A Kid is on until 3 March 2018 at the Orange Tree Theatre. Click here for more details.