Elvis Presley, be-kilted jugglers and a seven-foot tiger; no, not my ideal dinner party – though throw in a tap-dancing badger and you’re close – but just a couple of sights to be seen at the launch of Kids Week 2011.
If that tantalising trio sounds a little on the bizarre side, it just serves to highlight the eclectic nature of shows taking part in the 14th annual Kids Week in the West End, the hugely popular initiative that sees a host of London’s most popular shows giving away tickets and running special activities just to get children more engaged with, and involved in, the performing arts.
It speaks volumes for the promotion’s perennial popularity that despite the recent civil unrest, hordes of children and their attached adults descended on the Royal Festival Hall last Wednesday to celebrate the launch of another Kids Week with singing, dancing and general theatrical merriment.
“You never know what to expect with these kind of events,” said Dominic Ferris, shortly after leading hundreds of excited kids in a sing-along of show tunes from Grease, Mary Poppins and The Sound Of Music. “But the kids were great; they were loving it.”
Indeed they were. From dancing like snowmen with English National Ballet to a high-energy education in the musicians of yesteryear from Mamma Mia! and Million Dollar Quartet, the youthful audience were whooping with delight at an entertaining line-up unlike any other.
“There’s nothing better than seeing kids getting engaged with music and seeing what music can do, bouncing around and having fun,” Million Dollar Quartet’s Ben Goddard told Official London Theatre shortly after treating the Royal Festival Hall to his impressive piano playing as Jerry Lee Lewis.
If there was any fear that anyone under the age of 16 might not be interested in the hit musicians of half a century ago, it was quickly dispelled, with fellow Million Dollar Quartet star Bill Ward explaining: “It’s people having fun on stage, enjoying themselves. That communicates to anybody of any age, whether you’re four or five, like quite a few of those kids, or 80. It’s basic human stuff.”
It may well be, but every year Kids Week serves to refocus Theatreland’s collective mind on the importance of giving young people the chance to experience live theatre; the expectation of sitting in a pre-show auditorium, the thrill of the curtain rising and the joy of sharing in a live performance.
“Children not only deserve entertainment of their own, but are entitled to it as well,” explained children’s dramatist David Wood, who delighted the launch audience with both his own magic and an excerpt from his stage version of The Tiger Who Came To Tea.
Wood, whose stage adaptations also include The BFG and Tom’s Midnight Garden, is always a vocal advocate for the importance of children having the chance to experience live theatre, particularly if the show is aimed specifically at them, and is aware that some non-theatregoers might have preconceptions that need to be broken. “I think the idea of children going to the theatre can be seen as a middle class thing to do, a slightly elitist thing to do,” he explained. “I think those of us who work in the theatre all regret and resent that. It may be that it’s quite expensive, but it doesn’t mean to say that the work itself is elitist. So an initiative like Kids Week that perhaps just gives families that extra spur to take advantage of the offer and come to the theatre, must be a good thing.”
English National Ballet’s Laura Hussey, fresh from teaching the gathered crowd a very Christmassy routine for a sunny summer’s day, was also vocal about the importance of introducing children to the arts at an early age: “Children are going to be the audience and performers of the future. If we don’t get them interested at such a young age – and they certainly seem to be very interested here – then we will have no audience in 20 years time. So this is incredibly important work. But what’s most important is that they see theatre as something for them and something they can join in with and really, really enjoy.”
Certainly, most of the acts performing or leading activities at the launch had benefited from becoming involved with theatre at a young age: three of the quartet of juggling superstars The Flying Karamazov Brothers had been inspired to throw and catch all manner of bizarre objects by seeing an earlier incarnation of a Flying Karamazov Brothers show; Wood was inspired by a ukulele player; Marcus Brigstocke, who opened the event, was regularly taken to the theatre by his parents; while host Sam Attwater “started really late. I didn’t start until I was about 14. The younger you can get people started, the better [as performers] they can get.”
At a time when every other news story seems to be about childhood obesity and children with nothing to do, Mamma Mia!’s Tim Stanley, fresh from teaching parents and children a dance routine from the hit Abba musical, passionately believes that getting involved with theatre could also help with these issues: “It’s very good for the mind, it’s good for exercise and, I think, it’s very good for discipline, which in the last few days has been a massive issue as well.”
Though Kids Week offers youngsters a chance to learn more about theatre with workshops and activities, performing might not be for everyone. But with such an eclectic range of shows available around London – and a promotion offering one free child’s ticket and two more at half price with every full paying adult – seeing a show certainly is.
If there was ever a question about why taking a child to the theatre was worth it, Brigstocke answers that with an anecdote about his own show, The Railway Children, in which he plays Station Master Perks. “When the train comes in and Bobby stops it by waving the red flag, there’s a beat of silence before the music starts up again. In that beat of silence, I heard a kid go ‘Wow!’ You just think ‘I’d be happy to do this whole show for that one child to give that one response. It all seems worth it.”
Kids Week runs from 12 August to 4 September. For more information visit www.kidsweek.co.uk