Q1: Solve the following equation:
sa + s(l + c) x s(m-d) = really great children’s theatre
using We’re Stuck! as the basis of your answer. Remember to show your workings.
There’s a great quote in the opening essay of Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist: “If people do not believe mathematics is simple, it is only because they do not realize how complicated life is.” It’s attributed to John von Neumann, a man who could tell an axiom from an integral and a bounded operator from the dimension of a subspace as easily as I can see the difference between a tree and a cloud. Directed by Sarah Punshon, who a few years ago worked at the Natural History Museum finding ways to integrate theatre and art into its events and education programme, We’re Stuck! understands that, for children, life is marvellously simple and maths is a boring complication that gets in the way of play. There was no way of selling this show to my kids as actually involving maths: they’d have run a mile. So I told them it was about what we do when we can’t solve a problem, and how we find ways around that. They were still suspicious.
If m is for maths then a is for adventure. Punshon’s story is this: Dr Astrid Volcano, indomitable CEO of Volcano Industries, a top-level research laboratory in the field of artificial intelligence, has invited a group of aspiring recruits on a tour of her premises. She is, of course, far too important to conduct this tour herself, and since her twin brother Ernest copies her every move, it’s left to a lowly minion from the hoover department and an intern to lead it instead. We’re shown into the robotics room, where we’re invited to shout out grid coordinates (maths flashlight!) to get two robots dancing; and, when one of them malfunctions and shifts into kill mode, we have to penetrate the most secret rooms of the building, cracking codes (maths flashlight!) and solving geometry problems (MATHS FLASHLIGHT!) to rewire the robots for safety. It all becomes surprisingly high-stakes for the kids: my smallest, admittedly only seven, so younger than the recommended age range, had a meltdown at the potential dangers of getting things wrong. But, actual maths aside, this is central to the educational function of the show: life is full of fear and frustration, and our best possible strategy for dealing with that is to try, try again.
So there’s a touch of didacticism (d), which is placed as a negative in the formula, but is hilarious in places, particularly when the robots refuse to move unless “please functionality” is identified. And l is definitely for laughter, of which there is much. As earnest intern Dikita Day, Avita Jay doesn’t have much room to play, but the others relish every opportunity for clowning (c). Daniel Bye – whose own children’s show reflecting on the ethics of robotics, Error 404, was a theatre highlight of 2015 – sloughs off a layer of seriousness, making the absurdity of his character’s name, Dr Bernard Fenugreek, integral to every word he says. Claire Dunn, as Astrid and her robot counterpart, is an electric fizz of ornate gesticulation, rubbery as the human, clipped and stiff as the machine.
And then there’s Seiriol Davies. I’m going to have to admit bias here: Davies can make me laugh just by raising an eyebrow. He made me laugh as the self-important musician with the uncontrollable hair in Caroline Horton’s Mess, and again as a slovenly grotesque strutting around Horton’s satirical tax h(e)aven in Islands. He made me laugh as a flippant karaoke maestro in Five Tins and a Matter of Time, and again as a gloriously self-important aristocrat besotted with theatre in his musical How To Win Against History. In We’re Stuck! he made me cry with laughter, just by saying the words “compooter” and “secoority”. As hapless Ernest, he is the show’s fulcrum of cheerful stupidity, the person who interrupts the children’s solemn, urgent attempts to crack a numerical code by asking: “If this number were a hat, what kind of hat would be be?” If he’s multiply represented in the initial formula, it’s because of what else he brings: a slipperiness of character, opening up questions of whether he is villain or victim, bully or bullied; and, so key in children’s theatre, a quick-wittedness that means he can respond in a snip to everything the audience throw at him, as energetically at the end of the show as he does at the beginning.
So there we have it. Adventure, laughter, clowning, maths, didacticism and a lot of Seiriol Davies: maybe not the only formula for making really great children’s theatre, but a triumphant combination here.
We’re Stuck! is on at Shoreditch Town Hall until 1st April 2016. Click here for details.