This weekend marks ASSITEJ‘s World Day of Theatre for Children & Young People. Today is also the anniversary of our first show that never was; Dust at Half Moon Theatre, which was cancelled when theatres were forced to close their doors to physical audiences. Like last year, it is not possible to take children to a theatre building this weekend but there is now an abundance of high quality digital theatre available for all ages. Half Moon may not have managed to open their doors to audiences over the last 12 months but they have been very busy putting together a fantastic streaming season of specially filmed productions, including Dust itself. Over the last few weeks, we have been watching a few of their shows aimed at ages 3-10. Here are our thoughts on what we have watched so far.
Paper Aeroplane (Ages 3-7)
As regular readers will know, our favourite family shows tend to be those that tackle big subjects with small people (the gold standard in our eyes being Half Moon’s co-production with Tangled Feet, Need a Little Help, a show about young carers for ages 2-7). Paper Aeroplane is one of those productions. A West End OnComm finalist for Best Show for Children, it was developed with children who have shared their experiences of losing loved ones, and sensitively explores loss and bereavement. We watch as a young boy goes on a journey of grief, clinging to the memories of making paper planes with his Dad. Initially irritable when a friend wants to join his games, he soon learns that by sharing the things he did with his father, he can begin to enjoy those experiences again in a new way. It’s a really stunning production which is sufficiently ambiguous about the nature of the boy’s loss that it will work for a wide range of children, whether they have suffered a bereavement or have lost someone in a different way, such as through the separation of their parents or by fostering or adoption. This made it a fantastic conversation starter for our family and particularly Crotchet, who is naturally very avoidant when and doesn’t usually like to talk about losses or even watch things that trigger feelings of loss or sadness. (For those who are not so familiar with our blog, the munchkins are adopted, which means they suffered significant losses at a young age.)
Through watching the show together, we were able to explore how it can be really healthy to keep someone’s memory alive by doing things that you enjoyed with them, rather than keeping things buried because they are painful. One great thing about watching a production like this online is that you can have those conversations during the show. This was really helpful for us, especially as the ambiguity in the storyline needed some exposition, with both munchkins initially hoping that the talk of the father having “gone” meant something innocuous like having gone on holiday or the shops! It is much easier to discuss issues during the show, while they are still engaged in the storyline, than to try and kickstart a conversation afterwards when they want to go off and do something else. Having started the discussions during the show, we were able to keep the conversation going afterwards, making this perhaps the most powerful production that we have seen for our particular circumstances. We hope it returns to Half Moon again soon (either online or in their physical space) and would thoroughly recommend it for everyone, but especially those who have suffered losses. It’s incredibly sensitively done and manages to strike the perfect balance between raising the issue of grief without being too triggering or overwhelming.
Dust (ages 4-9)
Almost a year after we were due to watch Dust at Half Moon we finally managed to see it in filmed form. A Half Moon and Z-arts co-production written by acclaimed award-winning children’s author Laura Dockrill (Darcy Burdock book series and Big Bones), Dust uses puppetry, poetry and haunting music to explore a heartfelt story about love, loss, identity and memory. The show follows Titch as she goes to live with Nelly in a big, old dusty house filled with memories. Initially rejecting of her new ‘home’, Titch grows to appreciate Nelly’s outlook on life and, as the two strike up a powerful friendship, Titch finally starts to believe that she has found somewhere she belongs.
More so than Paper Aeroplane, Dust is highly likely to resonate with children who have experience of the foster care system. Aimed at a wider age range, it’s a rather darker story which, while playful, could well be triggering for children who have experienced abandonment in particular. This show is still available to watch until 26 March and although it could certainly open up some conversations, we would recommend that parents of adopted or fostered children watch it beforehand to check for trauma triggers. It’s also definitely one to watch with the children, rather than letting them watch it alone. That being said, there are some fantastic messages in it about the power of connection and shared experience, and could definitely lead to some rich conversations about the meaning of home and family. It’s beautifully staged and highly engaging, with an absolutely gorgeous set. Although aimed at ages 4-9, we would suggest that it is best suited to key stage 2 children, as the story is more complex and a little on the scary side in places. But overall a fantastic production with much to recommend.
The House that Jackson Built (ages 4-10)
Celebrating books and the joy of reading, The House That Jackson Built is a Justin Coe production featuring a larger than life pop-up book which contains themes of family, recycling and the power of imagination. With its big, playful set, we were expecting this one to be a bit of light relief to balance against the other two shows, but there is a central theme of loss in this show too. This time, the story focuses on the use of books and imagination as a method of escapism from a strained relationship following the death of a parent. Jackson’s dad is ready to move on but Jackson isn’t quite there yet. He needs a little help from the story fairy, who takes him on a journey of discovery via mum’s old favourite book.
Of the three, this is the one show that didn’t fully hold the munchkins’ attention and actually it was the more playful moments which they found less engaging. They were captivated during the elements of the show which focused on the real life story, but seemed to lose interest when it came to diving into the adventures in the book (although Quaver absolutely loved the giant pop-up book itself and wanted to make one of her own!) These segments seemed to drag a little and, although the point was to escape into a book, they just ended up feeling a little like they were detracting from the primary story. With an additional theme about recycling added into the mix, there is also a sense that the show doesn’t quite know what its main message is. There are some really nice elements but it didn’t quite work for us overall and it felt like it may be trying to cater to too many people at the same time. It almost felt as if there might be two separate shows in there somewhere, with the pop-up book and recycling stories catering to the younger end of the age range and the more mature storyline working for the older children.