Sophie Adnitt reviews Sarah McDonald-Hughes’ play How To Be A Kid at the Orange Tree Theatre
How To Be A Kid
Orange Tree Theatre
The marketing copy for Orange Tree Theatre’s How To Be A Kid is, in my opinion, a little misleading. It describes how twelve year old Molly cooks, washes up and gets her little brother Joe ready for school, so I assumed that it would explore the world of a young carer. With the age guidance of 7 – 11 years, it would be delivered in a way more accessible to children who hadn’t experienced such a role. Sounds promising. Upon actually watching the show however, this co-production with Paines Plough and Theatr Clwyd is in fact rather different.
To the grown ups in the audience, it’s affecting to fully see what’s going on; after a family bereavement, Molly and six year old Joe’s mum begins to suffer what is never properly named, but strongly resembles depression. Molly unofficially takes up the mantle of a surrogate parent, but after an accident at home, is taken into care. We first meet Molly five weeks later, as she prepares to return home again and leave behind new best friend Taylor, and learn that a lot of Molly’s outward courage is drawn from her nickname of Supergirl. Supergirl can do everything – until all of a sudden she encounters something that even her super powers can’t fix.
Sarah McDonald-Hughes’ quirky script deals with a myriad of themes, such as grief, mental health and responsibility – heavy stuff, but it’s dealt with calmly and sensitively, without being patronising. There’s a double layer of relevance, as issues such as death are explained gently to Molly and Joe (and the children in the audience), whilst the adults, connecting the dots quickly to realise what’s going on one step ahead, feel sympathetic to the explainers challenge.
With sound by Dominic Kennedy and lighting from Peter Small, the absence of set is overcome excellently. Bursts of pop music and coloured lights signify Molly and Taylor’s light-hearted playtimes, and Molly’s flights of fancy into her own imagination. The various routes around the Orange Tree’s auditorium are used to comedic effect as performer Sally Messham in particular races from spot to spot, purposefully running late to the mark. At 50 minutes long it’s an ideal length for an introduction to theatre for it young audience, and the pre-show soundtrack of One Direction and Little Mix tracks elicits excited whispers of recognition from the kids in attendance from the beginning. James Grieve’s direction is energetic enough to keep even the most easily distracted attentive, especially as Joe imitates his favourite dinosaurs.
With a small cast of three, only Katie Elin-Salt stays as one character, Molly, for the entirety. Hasan Dixon flits between roles, but spends the bulk of the show as Molly’s ‘extremely, extremely annoying’ brother Joe, acknowledging various audience members in an amusingly chummy fashion. But the true highlight of this cast is Sally Messham as Mum/Nan/Taylor/pretty much everybody else. With a range of accents and subtle shifts in posture at her disposal, Messham is a sensationally versatile performer.
This switching of characters is not without its issues though – both Messham and Dixon remain in the same costumes throughout, so the definition between characters can get a little confusing for the younger audience members. When Messham as Taylor left and then immediately returns as Mum, there was an audible murmur of confusion from a young girl in my section of the audience. Some of the more humorous lines land awkwardly to a minimal reaction, and Molly’s continuous train of narration becomes a little wearing at times.
But overall it’s a well-pitched piece; these are serious issues being dealt with, but the awareness is being raised to a young audience in a way that’s not frightening or insulting to their intelligence. As a tool to start conversations, as well as being a decently entertaining piece of theatre, How To Be A Kid is a high quality, endearing and surprisingly complex production.