Unicorn Theatre, London – until 15 April 2018
Beginners takes a complex route before it begins to feel like fun for adult and child alike. The premise of some bored children (played by adults) on a rainy holiday is something adults and children alike can relate to but Tim Crouch has created two plays; one for adults and one for children, which are very different in quality.
The issue with adults playing children is that usually provides a solid, multi-layered performance that even the greatest child performer isn’t ready for, but once the humour of Pandora Colin’s Lucy juggling a career as a ballet dancer and new mother to her doll Jasmine and Nigel (Neil D’Souza whose medical training only extends to the use of stethoscope) is established, it feels like the production has nowhere to go. Joy (Jacqui DuBois) is dealing with her mother’s illness and Bart (Rob Das) is the new step-sibling with the Dutch accent.
The level of depth is too much for a 9+ audience if the comments of confusion around me (dual casting is tough for a lot of adults) are anything to go by and a bit pretentious and dull for an adult. Children don’t need to be pandered to with childish fairy tales but many in the audience will be new to theatre, they need to be interested and clear on what is happening, not confused to the point where they decide to make up their own (sometimes better) conclusions.
Much of the action takes place in a bedroom where 4 children spend their long days with Sandy (Amalia Vitale ), their dog, dealing with parents breaking up, new step-siblings, parental illness and parental abandonment. As Lucy points out the holiday is for the parents to get away from their excitable Tween children. Where it shines and manages to keep all ages engaged is where the child actors do a play about the demise of bees and the loss of a parent. It is fun, silly and the young cast are clearly directed to enjoy themselves (Ethan Dattani, Nekisha Eric, Rowan Davies-Moore and Emilija Trajkovic) with Chloe Lamford’s flowery fantasy set dominating and Zoe’s Spurr’s lighting working in both the bedroom and children’s play scenes. Vitale gives an excellent supporting performance to both the adult and child cast throughout the production but it is a long and complex build up. It takes so long to get to this point that it feels like a second play rather than the conclusion to this production.
There isn’t a bad performance from any of the cast, I particularly enjoyed Dubois and Colins as the young girls that often clash but ultimately have a strong friendship amongst the chaos of their home lives but my issue was I questioned how suitable this was for the age group, not so much the subject matter but the language used (are all parents happy with a play using the word ‘Bastard’?) and the fact that you can write plays where children take on a lot of stage time (Notting Hill Gate’s Medea for example) that the casting of adults felt unnecessary.
It felt indulgent from Crouch, particularly the early stilted direction, the use of Radiohead’s Creep and it ultimately felt like the child-friendly element was the last minute concession to get it on at the Unicorn amongst a play that would work at the Royal Court but just isn’t engaging enough for adults and children alike for much of the time and I wish the playful element had been consistent because the emotional aspects failed to hit the mark.