Lies my parents told me:
If you eat your carrots then you’ll be able to see in the dark. Like a superhero.
Putting a pair of shoes on the bed means bad luck.
If you go out with wet hair you’ll get a cold.
(My mum still tells me that last one)
I’m sitting in the front row of the Purcell Room, pen and notebook on my lap when the kids walk out onstage and take their places in a line in front of me. One of the smaller girls, who can’t be older than eight, immediately starts staring at me. Her eyes flicker from my face to my open notebook. She sneezes involuntarily and her eyes immediately dart towards me. I cover my notebook with my hand and try to smile in an encouraging way. I try to communicate that I’m not going to be a scary critic. When there’s a funny line, I laugh extra loud, arrange my face into an appropriate reaction.
There’s something really arresting about a group of children speaking in unison. They’re lined up, a wall of solidarity, staring at a sold-out audience of adults. Tim Etchells is playing off the inherent first rule of theatre – that the people on the stage do the talking, and we in the audience do the listening. A deliberate, heightened role reversal between kids and adults.
They recite a litany of imperatives, sometimes accusatory, sometimes understanding, almost always frustrated.
You tell us rules are rules
You tell us to grow up
You tell us not to be so fucking stubborn
You give us the edited highlights
It’s alarming the way casual, almost unknowing cruelty is scattered in the things we say to children. The way “fuck” sounds coming out of a child’s mouth. It makes me think about the way certain things my parents said, off the cuff, maybe when they didn’t even realise I was listening, stick in my head now.
When the youngest kids get their turn, there’s a strange moment. They tell us how adults talk to kids about politics, world history, global atrocities. I think about how, at school, people would parrot their parents’ politics, how they’ve never really moved away from reactionary responses to their parents’ beliefs, even if they’re now staunch socialists to their parents’ conservatism. For a moment, we’re suspended. You can see the older kids sitting at the back of the stage, watching the smaller ones. There’s already such an enormous difference between them. You can see the breadth of their lives stretching out before them, over the vast, blank expanse of this stage.
Sometimes, when the kids say something that feels totally anachronistic – if they swear loudly, or say something about Brexit – there are these gales of laughter from the audience. There’s a genuine anger in their voice sometimes, and we still laugh. We just don’t take kids seriously, and they know it. But they have the power here. They’re the ones standing above us, controlling the laughs, acutely aware of how we see them.
There’s a moment when they all sit in a line and pass the microphone down. They say their name, and they make a promise. A manifesto? Is it for the show, or is it for their lives to come? The copy tells us that this is a show for adults, but is it really? Cos, kids need catharsis too, you know.
That Night Follows Day is on at Southbank Centre until Saturday 15th December. More info and tickets here.