Won’t somebody think of the children? Actually you don’t have to because Liverpool’s Unity Theatre has already done lots of thinking on their behalf and, since Christmas, has been programming some of the very best kids’ theatre it’s ever been my privilege to see.
From 20 Stories High’s The Broke ‘N’ Beat Collective to The Wrong Crowd’s Kite, young audiences have been gorging on powerful stories ingeniously told. We might as well not bother with the sugar tax. With a diet this rich, there’s no hope for Liverpool’s spellbound youth.
As a company that has been challenging adult audiences for more than 30 years with a unique brand of vigorously intelligent performance, Forced Entertainment might not be the first name that springs to mind when it comes to kids’ theatre. But that’s exactly why their visit mustn’t be missed. In a career built on confounding theatrical conventions, doing what you don’t expect is exactly what they do so well.
Cathy Naden is one of Forced Entertainment’s founding members, one of the core team that has helped the company build a global reputation for performance, art and innovation. When I spoke to her recently about the imminent Liverpool dates, she explained what had caused them to swerve their usual demographic and aim for the post-Millennial generation instead. Surely the decision must have been the result of some rigorous intellectual debate about the company’s future direction?
“Really, I think it was just because we’d never done it before. The Possible Impossible House was originally made for the Barbican two years ago – we had a slot in their Christmas schedule but it didn’t have to be Christmas-themed, so it seemed like a good chance to make a children’s show. As we’ve always dealt with storytelling in one way or another, but in a deconstructed or fragmentary way, it was good fun to try and actually construct a story for children and find ways of puncturing it a bit in the Forced Entertainment fashion.”
Not that the Unity version is a straight re-run of the 2014 original.
Naden explains: “We’ve reconfigured it slightly for Liverpool. Normally it’s a man who tells the story and a woman who is on sound, providing the noises and the orchestra. But quite often we make pieces for two people which we swap between different performers in the company. So we’ve also made a female-only version which is the one that will be coming to Liverpool.”
Where did the idea for The Possible Impossible House come from and what is it about?
“We were working with a visual artist called Vlatka Horvat who had been collecting photos and collages of interiors – grand old houses that you might find in Vienna at the turn of the century with crumbling ball rooms. That was how the house part of it came about.
“We realised that the house would be a nice toy to play with – you could journey around it, and it would deliver characters and surprises. We talked a lot about magical properties that the house might have, like staircases that you think you’re walking up but actually they’re going down, or taps that you turn and lemonade comes out.”
Judging by the production photographs, the show makes distinctive use of Horvat’s atmospheric visuals, but according to Naden, the use of sound is equally important. She specifically mentions the type of ‘Foley’ sound effects that add audio life to film and TV – walking through a tray of pebbles to create the sound of footsteps on a gravel path for instance.
“We’ve been interested in Foley sound for quite a long time, and I think with a kids’ show there’s something really enjoyable about the idea that you can chop a cabbage up to make the sound of someone’s head being chopped off.
“There’s a scene in The Possible Impossible House where we meet a mouse in the house’s basement, and it’s offered some chewing gum. The sound of the chewing is made by crunching on celery, and there’s a nice joke from the fact that it doesn’t sound right for chewing gum at all. So there are lots of bits of fun we have with it – and you always get children coming up to the sound table afterwards and wanting to have a look at how all the different sounds are made.”
Having grown up in Sheffield where Forced Entertainment is based, I’ve been aware of the company for many years, and I can’t resist the opportunity to ask Naden about their early experience of the city. When they emerged in 1984 their Sheffield theatre contemporaries included Stephen Daldry, whose Metro Theatre Company was touring an acclaimed version of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists – potent stuff at the height of the miners’ strike – and the late Clare Venables, who was imprinting her powerful personality on the Crucible Theatre. But what does Naden remember about the atmosphere of the times, and how did Forced Entertainment come to settle in the city?
“We’d been students down in Exeter and we had this shared idea about what a theatre company might be. The course we were on was very practical, so we grew up with this idea that you could make stuff yourself rather than doing plays.
“I think at that time we were much less interested in ‘theatre’. Our influences came more from music, bands, film and popular culture. We felt some affinity with Sheffield I guess, so we started out by trying to make something that wasn’t really like traditional theatre. That was the origin of this idea of challenging people’s expectations. Theatre doesn’t have to be a play or a text – it can contain all sorts of different elements.”
Naden also reminds me that celebrated gig and club venue The Leadmill was a much more experimental place back in 1984 than it is today.
“The Leadmill had a regular event that I think was called 4D – it was a season of experimental theatre and performance. In those days it was really rare to find venues that programmed that kind of work, but that’s all changed now.”
And before we can immerse ourselves too deeply in the golden glow of the past, Naden is enthusing about the current state of Sheffield’s art.
“The city still has a very rich music scene, and the visual arts are really interesting here as well. And as for performance – we’ve got Theatre Delicatessen now. I find their way of operating really interesting because they take over buildings and squat in them.”
With 30 years on the clock, Forced Entertainment is now a venerable name in British theatre, and I wonder how the experience of working with the same creative team for so long has changed the way they now see the world.
Naden says: “It’s changed massively. The more we work together, the more we have a history, a sense of language and a set of interests that we share. I think over time those become more and more clear and refined, and you come back to the things that really interest you. For us, that’s about making a theatre that’s entertaining but also challenging – and which challenges people’s expectations.”
That phrase again: challenging expectations. It seems that with Forced Entertainment you just can’t get away from it. Whatever you expect, that’s what it won’t be. But whatever you don’t expect, you’ll be right.
In my experience, that’s exactly the kind of approach that children love, so bring on The Possible Impossible House. It sounds as though Liverpool’s kids will feel at home.
Photo credit: Hugo Glendinning
The Possible Impossible House is at the Unity Theatre, Liverpool, April 8-9, 2016. For more information, click here.