REVIEW: Belongings, Tangled Feet and Rowan Tree (Polka Theatre)

*Content warning*: Belongings contains themes of separation from birth parents and siblings, as well as absent, unreliable and unwell parents. It may also be triggering for children who have suffered bereavement or experienced other losses or traumas.

Regular readers will know that our gold-standard for children’s theatre is Tangled Feet’s Need a Little Help, a co-production with Half Moon about young carers. It was one of the first shows we ever reviewed and we still talk about it four years later. (Read our review of Need a Little Help.) This year, Tangled Feet are touring a brand new production for ages 6 to 11 on a subject very close to our hearts. Created in partnership with Rowan Tree Dramatherapy, Belongings is a therapeutic piece inspired by the experiences of children in foster care.

Belongings follows three children who live together in a foster home. We meet them as nine-year-old Cleo (Carla Garratt) first arrives, frightened and confused. She’s not quite sure why she’s there but she knows she needs to get back to where she belongs. She’s welcomed warmly by eight-year-old BT (Harris Cain) and rather more cautiously by 12-year-old Leila (Jesse Bateson) and soon the trio are playing together. To an outsider, the games they play look fairly typical, but we start to get glimpses of their background as they use the power of play to safely explore their trauma.

Their imaginative games are grounded in reality so, like many children, they role play familiar experiences like school and home life, and complain about grown-ups doing mean things like limiting screen time. But in their world, adults aren’t just teachers and parents; they’re also judges and social workers, and games of “Mums and Dads” invoke fear. Hide and seek also takes on a very different meaning when it becomes “Hide at Auntie’s”. It’s brilliantly done, managing to be extremely relatable for children with no experience of the care system while giving them a rare insight into the reality of life in foster care.

They can see that children in care are just like them, gaining empathy for their situation in a way that never really happens in school (where fostering and adoption tend to be dropped briefly into PSHE lessons as examples of “different families”). Schools often do detailed work on similar issues like evacuation and refugees, but rarely explore the other core reason why children may be living away from their home and birth families.

And, of course, for care-experienced children it means seeing yourself on stage. So many of the children’s experiences will be recognisable to foster and adoptive families, from hypervigilant BT’s obsession with the criminal justice system to Cleo’s disappointment every time a visit with her Mum is cancelled, and Leila’s desperation to see the sister from whom she has been separated. We see the importance of the bonds between children who live together in foster care, as well as the sense of divided loyalties they can feel when living apart from their birth family.

None of the stories are fully concrete, giving plenty of scope for children to ask questions afterwards (and there are some excellent downloadable resources available for these purposes). The lack of clear detail means care-experienced children may see elements of their own experiences without it being either too close to home or so different to their personal story that it doesn’t feel relevant. By leaving so many questions unanswered, it also really hammers home the point made in the show that adults often don’t tell children everything, meaning life in care can be very uncertain and scary.

It’s also a very nice touch to utilise Stage Manager Josephine Tremelling as the foster carer, with her technical job echoing the role that foster carers play in setting boundaries and routines to create a safe and predictable space for the children in their care.

Belongings is very much a trademark Tangled Feet production, blending innovative design (by Becky-Dee Trevenen) and some gorgeous lighting design by Sarah Readman) with original music (by Guy Connelly) and physical theatre to create something very moving. The influence of the unique therapeutic design process (working with care-experienced consultants who are already engaged in dramatherapy) is very clear, giving the production the authentic feel that can only be achieved by learning from those with lived experience of the subject matter. The audience is almost immersed in a dramatherapy session, rather than watching a traditional piece of theatre, and there’s even a chance to join the cast playing parachute games at the end.

Although the ending is hopeful, it isn’t sickly sweet and gives a very real sense of the reality of life in care, with Cleo learning to accept why it isn’t safe to go home to her Mum and Leila preparing to move into her own accommodation. Admittedly BT does end up being adopted and his new life could perhaps seem a little less rosy. Although it was a surprisingly good parallel for our family, the munchkins will attest that adoptive mums who dance in the kitchen can also be grumpy and will definitely limit your screen time! (On a less flippant note, there’s clear scope in here for another production or two, focusing on different aspects of life after foster care.)

We have been waiting four years for another piece of theatre to come close to Need a Little Help, and it’s no surprise that Tangled Feet have achieved it with Belongings. It’s one we will certainly be talking about for quite some time, and we can’t wait to see what Tangled Feet come up with next.

Belongings played at Polka Theatre on 25 and 26 February 2023 as part of a tour. We received complimentary tickets to the afternoon performance on 26 February (as well as purchasing an additional two tickets for the rest of the family).

Read more about the process of creating Belongings in The Big Issue.

Buy a bag for a child in care: If you are inspired by the issues raised by Belongings, and want to ensure that children in care never have to transport their personal belongings in bin bags, check out Madlug, who donate a bag for every piece of luggage they sell. (We have a couple of Madlug bags and can vouch for their quality, as well as the brilliant work the business does. You can also donate a bag without buying one yourself.)