Nursery fantasies caught in the limelight

21st March 2008 at 00:00
It goes without saying that "experimental" theatre is the domain of sophisticated adults. Or is it?

Would you, for example, take your nursery pupils to see a piece of experimental theatre? If not, don't take them to see Licketyspit's current touring production Heelie-go-Leerie, which is a play about play.

On a Stig-of-the-Dump set, three characters pop in and out of two doors, a washing machine, an oil drum and a trapdoor. They are trying to mend a hole in the sky which is letting smoke in, while swimming where there is no water, rocketing through the universe, and attempting to conjure dragons out of a dustbin.

The play explores what exactly "play" is, and the sophisticated role of imagination which young children naturally experiment with every day of their lives.

Some 300 early years pupils attending this production, which launched its Scottish tour at the Brunton Theatre in Musselburgh last month, were clearly engaged - sometimes vociferously, often intrigued, and occasionally rapt. This was a kind of world they knew - a secret world, their world.

Licketyspit's modus operandi is to take ideas into nurseries to develop storylines with children through workshops, which include rhymes and songs, and incorporate them in a professional production.

A comprehensive teacher's pack has some storylines, rhymes and songs, so that young audiences know in advance what they are coming to experience. And it is fair to say they "experience" rather than just "see" the show; they're not shy about shouting out what they think the characters are or should be doing.

There is no "fourth wall" in this kind of theatre. The children are in from the start. They are introduced to the actors and the characters, are told how theatre tells stories, and not to worry if the stage seems a bit scary and dark at the start.

"I think we often underestimate how sophisticated young children are," says Virginia Radcliffe, Licketyspit's artistic director and writer. "Not only do they love to play with adults, they love adults to take their play seriously. This is what we do in drama workshops with them and this is why these are essential to what we finally produce."

Ms Radcliffe began working in children's theatre some seven years ago and drew on her two daughters' early years experiences for her ideas. Licketyspit was launched in 2004 and has been entertaining audiences around the country since.

Heelie-go-Leerie (Head over Heels) is linguistically rich, but the audience seems to catch most of it and clearly follows the general idea. "Children love language and they don't have to understand every word to like the sounds it makes," says Ms Radcliffe.

"They are used to trying to make sense of adult conversations, and they love rhymes, rhythms and sounds, whether they understand everything or not. We have a rich verbal culture in Scotland and a wealth of nursery songs and rhymes which can be adapted and to which children respond vigorously."

The company's slogan is Good Theatre for Children is Good Theatre for Everyone, and its aim is to make meaningful theatre which allows children to have ideas of their own and to have faith in them.

The big question underlying Heelie-go-Leerie is: are dragons for real? To answer that question, take your 3-year-old self (yes, you still have one) to see the show, which tours until April 26.

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