For 16 years, thanks to Kids Week, children have been coming to the West End to experience the excitement of London theatre for free. Not only that, the annual promotion, which offers a free child’s ticket for every full priced ticket purchased and an additional two children’s tickets at half price, also organises an array of fun theatrical activities for them to enjoy at no extra cost.
This year, Official London Theatre’s Kate Stanbury became a child for a day, taking part in a series of workshops and events, where she learnt – or, in some cases, observed – how to create a theatre poster, ballet dancing with Billy Elliot and the secrets behind The 39 Steps:
The day began with a trip to marketing agency AKA where I, along with nine participants far younger than me, was propelled into the world of West End advertising. Fuelled by orange squash and popcorn – yes, they’re a marketing agency, they have their own popcorn machine – we started by playing a game of ‘guess the show’. It may have been a far cry from Angry Birds – or whatever it is that kids enjoy these days – but the wannabe designers took to the challenge, which involved guessing the productions from partially concealed posters, with relish. Proving themselves quite the experts, the group of 12 to 16-year-olds solved every single one, from recognising Stomp “because there’s a man holding a trash can” to the more tricky, entirely obscured apart from the background, Matilda The Musical, which was identified by “the font on the ‘a’”. Had the children not still been at school, they would have been recruited to the company there and then, I’m sure.
With the help of print designer Ben Pinwill, it was time for the mini Mad Men and one slightly less digitally-savvy journalist to get hands-on and create their very own show poster, one that would promote the fictional but undoubtedly successful – if it were ever to materialise – Kids Week The Musical, starring the nine people sitting beside me. Let loose on every aspect, from the colour scheme to the show dates, they opted for a “Rock Of Ages meets Matilda” theme that, after “a five-star rating from the Sun” was overruled, showcased an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza of a show that was revered by the Sunday Times and opened just down the road at the Palace theatre that very day. Had it been a real show, that wouldn’t have given them much time to sell tickets, but with a poster that good, it didn’t matter, the tickets would have been flying out of the box office anyway.
After a morning of getting geeky, I had an entirely different afternoon ahead of me at Danceworks Studios, where Georgina McDermott was leading a ballet session with Billy Elliot The Musical. Lucky enough to be in the company of Billy himself, Harrison Dowzell, the 11 girls, all with previous ballet experience, took to the floor to plié, promenade and pirouette their way through the 90 minute workshop.
As someone who can barely balance on one leg let alone decipher the difference between a croisé and a chasse, I was grateful to be watching from the sidelines. Even more so when it came to what McDermott describes as her “gruesome stretch”, a nigh-on indescribable feat of back-breaking proportions. My ignorance became even more apparent later in the session when the workshop leader asked “Who knows what fondues are for?” and my mind wandered into a Willy Wonka-like world of sugary marshmallows and flowing chocolate fountains. Apparently, this is not a fondu’s primary purpose – not in ballet at least – and instead refers to the action of bending the supporting leg in a fluid movement.
To a soundtrack that, I think Beyoncé would agree, is poles apart from your conventional ballet score, including Run The World, Don’t Stop Believin’ and Passenger, the participants demonstrated what – in my amateur eyes – looked like astounding fondues along with unbelievable flexibility and co-ordination in a series of jaw-dropping moves that had my muscles aching merely at the sight of them. If that wasn’t enough to get me running to the nearest gym and demanding a year’s membership in embarrassment at my inferior fitness, the session was then brought to a close by Dowzell’s energetic performance of Electricity.
After the workshop, but before making that all-important dash to rid my shame, McDermott shared my wonderment at the children’s talents: “They did great. It’s quite a hard class and there were very different levels of experience. They all coped really well.” Talking about the importance of having the much-loved musical’s title character dancing in the room with them, she continued: “It’s always great to have someone to look up to who’s a professional dancer to demonstrate and watch, particularly in ballet. I would recommend always watching people better than you [and] professionals because it is such a great way of learning and picking up things.” Participant Charlotte Weller, not even out of breath following the hour and a half of exhausting exercise, couldn’t have agreed more, telling me that Dowzell was one of the main reasons that she found the session so useful. “I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was really nice to work with the team and get help, especially with the turns. It was really helpful to watch [Dowzell’s] feet work.” Fellow dancer and namesake Charlotte Whiting also considered the young star to be an excellent role model, proving far more inspiring than even the very best school careers advisor. “Because I would like to go into that type of career it was nice to see someone around about my age, rather than always having teachers talking to you about careers.”
After promenading, in the more casual sense, to the Criterion theatre, where an audience full of excitable children and their just as excitable parents were enjoying the matinee performance of the venue’s residing hit comedy, it was time to unlock the secrets of The 39 Steps. While we waited for the cast to change out of their many disguises, children in the audience shared their favourite moments from the show, with highlights including “when he did all the facts”, “the puppets” and, from one boy after what felt like hours of umming and ahing, “all of it”.
Having built more suspense than an Alfred Hitchcock movie, Jennifer Bryden, Stephen Critchlow, Adam Jackson-Smith and Andy Williams took to the stage to give an exclusive insight into the show’s on-stage stabbings, shadow puppetry and performance blunders. But, despite having a wealth of experience and numerous theatre credits to their names, nothing could have prepared them for what came next: questions posed by children as young as five.
While some asked relevant – and appropriate – questions such as where the show got its name, how the actors maintained their concentration when playing so many roles and what the audition process was like, others enquired, referring to the show’s lead duo, “Are you two together?”, “When you speak fast, do you speak that fast normally?” and, my particular favourite, “Do you have to wear fake lips when kissing?”
Struggling to contain themselves, the actors responded to the latter with suppressed giggles and an explanation about how the pair experiences moustache/lipstick transfer in the process, while their less intimate questions were met with descriptions about how they remembered their lines and what made them audition, with a sarcastic reference to money, the small company, and the sheer fact it’s just good fun among their replies.
Children and adults alike left the theatre smiling and, with the exception of the young girl who demanded to go on stage, satisfied with the answers to their questions, while I left having completed my day of Kids Week activities and wanting to retrain as a print designing actress with a talent for ballet.
There is still plenty of time to book tickets for Kids Week, with thousands of tickets still available for the fabulous family promotion that runs until the end of August.