REVIEW: Need a Little Help, Tangled Feet & Half Moon Theatre (Stratford Circus Arts Centre)

“It’s really good. It’s making me sad.” These were the words that Mrs Mummy leaned over and whispered halfway through Need a Little Help. Not only did Mummy not shush Mrs Mummy for talking during the show, but she made a mental note to write these words down as soon as it finished. Mummy had been planning on starting her review with a witty comment about how she was pleased to have been wearing classy Happy Socks for a performance that required shoe removal. Or an observation that none of the other parents felt the need to enter a children’s show clutching a plastic cup of prosecco. But these thoughts didn’t quite seem to do this production the same justice as the simple comment that a show aimed at 2-7 year olds could make a fully grown adult sad.

Mummy had been intrigued by how the performers would manage to convey the experiences of young carers in a way that an even younger audience could understand. This is clearly an emotive subject which needs careful treatment. At the same time, it is very hard to hold the attention of a room full of toddlers. Mummy noted that the majority of the children in the audience were towards the bottom of that age range. Yet they remained transfixed for the full 40 minutes.

Need a Little Help follows the story of Ella and her Dad as they go about their daily lives. Lives that are impacted by Dad’s degenerative disability (demonstrated very visually by a large twisting pipe that prevents use of his hand and hinders his movement). It cleverly utilises the technique of repetition that is so common in children’s stories, but the family’s daily routine gradually changes to reflect the Groundhog Day experienced by young carers.

Recurring verbal and visual motifs also give a sense of the shift in caregiver role from parent to child. So we start with Dad strumming the guitar, listing off all the things that his hands do in his role as parent: “These are the hands that play the guitar….These are the hands that care for you.” But as the story moves on, Dad’s hands can’t quite do those things anymore, so Ella has to step in and help. And it becomes Ella’s turn to tell Dad what her hands can do. It begins playful, with Ella stating that her hands are there to help Dad with fun activities like playing the guitar. Eventually we have a full role reversal, with Ella asserting to Dad that her hands care for him.

As Dad’s condition worsens, we see him struggle to balance a desire to protect Ella with a need to accept her help. And we see the real impact on Ella, as her school grades slip and she becomes more isolated from her friends. Perhaps the most poignant moment came midway through, when Ella (already helping Dad with some tasks by this stage) presented her feet for Dad to tie her shoelaces, but had to head off to school with her untied laces trailing. A heart-wrenching reminder that young carers are just children who can’t do everything.

This immersive production beautifully allows the audience a glimpse into the lives of young carers and their families. From the moment they enter (through Ella and Dad’s front door), they are escorted into Ella’s world (quite literally, as she leads the children to sit on the floor at the edge of the performance space). And eventually, as Ella accepts that she too needs a little help, she allows the young audience further into the action. The feathers she playfully blows into the air become bigger and harder to keep up, until finally the cushions she uses to make Dad’s bed explode into a shower of feathers. Sensing Ella’s desperation, some of the the children in the audience actually ran onto the stage without prompting to help her clear up the mess. And as everything became too much for Ella to manage alone, she invited her helpers to step into the shoes of a young carer and join her in the final repetition of her daily routine.

This was an uplifting work which shone a spotlight on the unseen stories of so many young people and served as a valuable reminder of the amazing capacity that all children have for empathy. Above all, I hope that the young audience took home not just a souvenir pink feather but the message that it’s ok to ask for help.

RATING: raindrops, whiskers, kettles, mittens and brown-paper packages (aka five out of five of my favourite things.)