Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Cautionary Tales for Children

Cautionary Tales for Children runs at Merrigong from April 23-4. Based on the poems by Hilaire Belloc, written by Claudia O'Doherty, directed by Naomi Edwards.
There is a lot of potential for fun in Cautionary Tales for Children. Sadly, the show does not live up to it. The performers try their hardest to engage their audience, but ultimately fall short. This show isn't bad, per se - it has some good elements - but overall, it's pretty mediocre.

Cautionary Tales for Children is based on the poems of Hilaire Belloc. Belloc wrote the poems in the early twentieth century and they were intended to be a parody of the cautionary moral tales prescribed to children in the Victorian period. As such, the consequences for misbehaviour were very exaggerated - for example, in one tale a boy wanders away from his nurse and as a direct consequence, is eaten by a lion. In this production, the tales are related through song to the audience by a troupe of time-travelling children (Jolyon James, Sarah Ward, Natalie O’Donnell, and Mark Jones) who preach good behaviour wherever they go. Their time machine is powered by good behaviour, and so the show is based on the premise that they must scare the children into being good via Belloc’s tales.

Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of the cast, the show fails to engage the audience. It’s aimed at kids aged 8-12, but I’m pretty sure that if you took a 12 year old along to this, they wouldn’t be very impressed. In terms of tone, it seemed to be aimed at a much younger audience. Considering that the poems were originally written for adults, this isn’t a particularly good decision. The show gets caught somewhere in the middle. It’s hard to judge how effective kids’ theatre is when you’re an adult, but the kids in the audience really didn’t seem to be responding to the show. They responded when they were asked to – screamed when they were asked to scream, for example – but otherwise, they were almost silent throughout, which seemed to me that either a) they weren’t that engaged, or b) they were really, really well-behaved. And if it’s the latter, well... that kind of defeats the point of the show.

I also think the show had structural problems which made it hard for the audience of kids to relate to it. The main characters are neither co-conspirators with the audience nor antagonists – they exist somewhere in between. Perhaps a commitment either way here would have made the show stronger. As it was, the characterisation felt a little muddled and confused. I felt at the beginning that the interludes between the poems might be the most compelling part of the show, but it quickly became a little self-indulgent and waffle-y. And maybe it’s just me, but they all had a kind of creepy, Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang-esque vibe about them which I don’t think was intended.

The poems themselves are a little dated, but I think they could have been made relevant to and fun for a kids’ audience. This show, sadly, does not do it. (I’m also sad that they didn’t include the Belloc poem about the boy who cried so much it ruined his political career, but I get why they didn’t.) They get lost in the song: sometimes the music is so complex it’s hard to actually make out the words and thus follow the cautionary tale.

I want to end this review on a positive note. The set for this show (designed by Jonathon Oxlade, last seen on Wollongong stages in School Dance) is absolutely awesome. It’s practical, functional, and has a really appealing aesthetic. Five stars for the set. The rest of the show...? Not so much.


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