MY MATE FANCIES YOU Loud Mouth Theatre Company touring
How do you teach the more sensitive aspects of growing up to children who are in the thick of it and feeling embarrassed by the whole business? In science, they get all "the biology stuff" as Sarah, a 12-year-old girl at a school in Hereford puts it. "But we don't get anything on what happens really."
She has just seen an interactive theatre piece called My Mate Fancies You that deals with "what happens really". Her verdict? "It was realistic. And funny. " Presented by Loud Mouth Theatre Company, a Birmingham-based company consisting of two young actors, Eleanor Vale and Chris Cowan, it reaches parts of pubescent experience that most personal and social education doesn't reach.
Through a combination of humour and the social realism of awkward adolescent relationships, it delves into all the tricky sensitive areas that teachers find difficult. As one science teacher puts it after seeing the performance and the before-and-after workshops: "It builds on Year 7 sex education that we teach in biology. But it goes further. No matter how relaxed I am with them, I'm still their teacher. They can be more open with new people in a drama workshop format than they could be in the classroom."
As indeed they are. The liberating effect of the programme on the mixed group of Years 7 and 8 is marked. By way of introducing the play, Chris and Eleanor ask the children to brain-storm for words and phrases connected with growing up. They come up with "learning new things", "deepening voice", "growing taller", "playing with matches". The silences in between are laden with early-teenage taboos. At the end of the programme, the group is asked to do the same again. The play has broken down the barriers. The pupils offer "having sex", "wet dreams", "discovering contraception".
There is neither embarrassment nor bravado on the part of the contributors - or sniggering by their classmates. It is clear that it is the first time these words have been uttered by some of these kids in front of adults, let alone in a giggle-free zone. You can almost sense their relief as, en masse, they come to realise that they are all in the same boat and that there is nothing wrong with sprouting hairs at the age of 10, fancying everybody in sight or getting tearful at the sight of a sick kitten.
The play is a comic piece about two children, Clare and Daniel. The story begins when they are 10 years old and best friends. They tell each other all their secrets, play with uninhibited physicality and share a distaste for mushy stuff like snogging. The story takes them through four years of emotional ups and downs, of fancying each other at the wrong times, of cataclysmic changes to their bodies and their personas, of jealousies and mistrust, and, eventually, of a kind of understanding between them.
Daniel is an unreconstructed pillock and becomes more of one as Clare reaches maturity years ahead of him. Chris Cowan overplays the role of the boy as if his life depended on it, pouting, shrieking in paroxysms of pique and puffing out cheeks in his portrayal of an immature 13-year-old. His toddler-like antics are counterpoised by the pre-teen posturings of the self-aware Clare. He shrieks at the audience: "My willy went all hard when I was watching telly last night!" Clare calmly confides in us, "I'll have to get a bra soon. I'm really excited." The audience laps it up. After the performance, Chris and Eleanor divide the audience into gender groups to analyse the characters' behaviour and look at how growing up has affected their relationship.
Loud Mouth has produced teachers' notes for follow-up work. The personal and social education co-ordinator at the Hereford School has no doubt that the notes will be useful to her.
"The programme as a whole is an ideal vehicle with the Year 8 group in particular," she says. "It's a good point of delivery, as they move up the school together and relationships develop between them."
"I haven't come across another group offering this kind of work. I'm glad we found them," says a Year 8 tutor.
Tour details: 0121 446 4880