What was the play or film that you saw as a child that had a lasting effect on you? What if you could have a similar impact on today’s younger generation? As they bring their award-winning hit Alf The Highwayman to VAULT Festival this week, we talk to Brave Bold Drama’s Gill Simmons and Paul Lawless about the joys of family theatre. Time to get booking!
Meet Alf, a selfish child who has grown into a lonely highwayman leading a life of crime on the road. Hiding out in a chilly cave, Alf has a sack full of stolen items that looked really tempting at the time, but have subsequently somehow lost their shine. Alf watches the road leading from a nearby village. He goes on a thieving spree, stealing toys with sentimental value from two children before meeting his match when he tries to steal a teddy bear from a feisty Grandma who’s having absolutely none of it. Will Alf change tack and learn there are better ways to play?
With catchy, folksy original music, a brand-new, never-before-told story and lots of exciting ways to join in the playfulness, Brave Bold Drama’s Alf The Highwayman is a family show for all ages to enjoy together. The performance is followed by interactive playtime with the cast.
Alf The Highwayman is made and performed by Gill Simmons and Paul Lawless, who have been touring the since 2016, picking up Best Children’s Show awards from Shaftesbury Fringe (2016) and Swindon Fringe (2017) along the way. They are also, respectively, the artistic director and creative producer of Brave Bold Drama.
What do you love about creating work for children?
Gill: I’m a single parent, so I live a lot in the world of children. It’s a world I know very well, and it’s a world that should be exciting, playful and inspiring. So that’s what we try to create with our work. The company Brave Bold Drama began back in 2013 when I left secondary drama teaching and set up running imaginative play sessions with my then two-year-old daughter in tow. It felt very natural, therefore, as the company became more established, for us to do work families could enjoy together. That’s the best part for me: seeing families smiling, sharing a story together. Knowing that we’ve created that experience for them to share is such a privilege! Also, children are incredibly honest audience members. They won’t sit still if they’re bored. So when we hear, as we do after every show, “they were mesmerised”, we are always delighted, because we know that the show genuinely captured the children’s imagination.
Paul: For me, it’s the fact that the work we make isn’t exclusively for children and that the shows can be mutually appreciated by a younger audience as well as adults. When devising material, I feel a great sense of responsibility to not patronise or belittle a younger audience, so we incorporate thoughtful layers that challenge a younger mindset. Appealing to a wider demographic is tough so we really have to put the work in to get it right. I also love the freedom of playing with music and song in addition to blending bold visual elements and participatory play. Seeing the reaction on the children’s faces when they contribute to the action is pure joy for us – we want to empower children, so they go away and create their own stories inspired by our shows.
What’s been your favourite reaction to the show?
Gill: There’s been lots because we’ve been touring this show since 2016, but three stand out for me. When Alf tells an untruth to Gertie near the end of the play, one time a girl was so incensed at this that she shouted out “No, he’s lying!” Another time, when the little boy Bobby shows how much he misses his big brother Jack who’s gone away to sea, one little boy was visibly moved by Bobby’s sadness and had to hug his mum to get through that moment. But he stayed with it. He didn’t look away. He was utterly invested in the emotion of the moment, and that was really powerful for me.
Lastly, often families come with slightly older children who often you can see as they come in are slightly unimpressed as they think it’s a show for younger children. One boy, aged around 10, was initially like this, but at the end of the show was overheard having a really in-depth conversation with his father about whether a particular moment was a ghost, or a memory, or Alf’s conscience speaking to him. It was really rewarding to see that the layers of inference that we deliberately built into the show had worked.
We say we make family theatre, not children’s theatre. We want these thoughtful layers to spark the imagination of older children and adults, but not to the degree that they are excluding for the younger children. It’s a delicate balance to make, but we really feel with this show that we have succeeded, because so many audience members of all ages from young children to grandparents have told us so.
Paul: There have been many memorable moments. Children are often gripped by a sense of injustice when Alf seemingly evades the repercussions of his thieving (for the most part anyway) so I secretly love the running commentary of this during the performances. These murmurings make me think we’re doing our job because the children are so invested in the action. I also like it when children leave asking their parents questions and begin unpicking the intentions of the characters.
What was the play or film that affected you most as a child?
Gill: I don’t remember going to the theatre much as a child, I was more about books, but I do have one extremely vivid memory of being taken to see a panto, Cinderella, at the Bristol Hippodrome. Lionel Blair was playing Buttons. Yes, I’m quite old. My mum said on the way to the theatre that sometimes they invite children up on stage, and apparently, I wasn’t keen. However, when that moment came I literally ran across the feet of everyone in the row to dash up onto the stage.
To this day, I can picture the shiny white floor, that feeling of being hugged by the theatre lights, marvelling at how they were making my velour pedal pushers sparkle (yes, that’s what I was wearing), and I can remember thinking, “this is where I want to be!” I was maybe five or six. So many years later, I’m more about devised theatre than panto and I’ll probably never play the Hippodrome, but I do think that moment was incredibly seminal in my life.
Paul: This is a really tough call. I will list three films and explain why I love/loved them so:
- Mary Poppins – Visually spectacular with incredible songs. I would always cry in the end. The cartoon sequence with the penguins is iconic and pure magic.
- Home Alone – I love the humour and Kevin’s traps. Employing a bit of elastic thought can always get you out of a spot of bother.
- Mrs Doubtfire – Robin Williams is a genius and I love the scene where the social worker comes to his flat and he has to multi-role. I also love how he goes to such extremes to see his children. I always found that really poignant.
More production shots
As part of the 2019 VAULT Festival, Alf The Highwayman runs from 26 January to 3 February at The Vaults, Leake Street, London SE1 7NN. Performances (one hour) run at 4.30pm on Saturday 26 January and 3pm on Sunday 27 January, Saturday 2 and Sunday 5 February. Tickets are priced £12. CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE!