One of the best things about being a parent in Liverpool used to be our family’s Christmas trip to the Unity Theatre. Not a panto but never po-faced, the fare dished out by this beautifully bijou Hope Place venue always elicited belly laughs and smiles while still delivering a thoughtful tale you could get your teeth into – whatever your age.
Or so I always thought. Imagine my something-in-my-eye surprise when, about four years ago, my eldest son whispered the words I’d been secretly dreading: “I don’t think I fancy the Unity this year…”
It wasn’t the theatre’s fault of course. No, it was his fault for suddenly having the temerity to be into teen horror and very tight jeans rather than the collected works of the Brothers Grimm. So at that point, the Unity show disappeared from our Christmas calendar and I’d be fibbing if I said I hadn’t missed its embrace.
Just my luck too to have missed the Unity’s recent Christmas collaborations with Action Transport Theatre – one of the UK’s leading companies producing quality theatre for, and with, young people. From their Ellesmere Port base, Action Transport creates children’s theatre that opens young minds and gladdens young hearts and, for the past three years, has been the Unity’s partner in bringing the Christmas show to life.
People tell me I’ve been missing something special, so in anticipation of reacquainting myself with the Unity’s uniquely intelligent take on Christmas entertainment – with or without my own kids alongside me – I spoke to Nina Hajiyianni, artistic director of Action Transport and director of this year’s show, about what the theatre has in store.
“Our production this year is The Princess and the Pea,” explains Hajiyianni. “It’s a story that many of us remember from our childhoods, and we have an idea that it’s about a really big bed with a pea underneath it, but I think there’s not much else that we know about it. It isn’t one of those stories that’s got a lot of twists and turns.”
If audiences are a little fuzzy on the traditional tale’s details, does that open up new possibilities for a theatre company?
“Beyond that central image of the bed – which we do have lots of fun with – we’ve been quite bold with some story ideas around who the princess is, where she’s come from, what the kingdom’s like, and we’ve asked lots of questions about power relationships and traditions and stuff like that. We’ve been quite challenging with the story.”
Using fairy tales as source material and then bending them out of shape is a Christmas theatre tradition of course, but as Hajiyianni implies, her team has taken a socially aware approach rather than simply fluffing up the story with festive stuff and nonsense.
“I don’t want to give too much away, but one of the decisions we made was to make the girl a refugee. We never use that word, but we know she comes from a distant shore and needs help and support. She arrives somewhere and is very unwelcome. It sounds quite heavy but we do it with a light touch so it’s still very much a fairytale, still very much in the world of fun.”
It takes careful wielding of the director’s wand to get this balance just right, but it’s the kind of theatrical conjuring trick at which Action Transport excels. Hajiyianni is clearly exhilarated about working this way.
“I think that’s the joy of the challenge. I often feel that Christmas shows don’t deliver on that front. Sometimes I see a lot of jokes and entertainment, but it’s played on one level, and I think it is possible to get a really good story and still deliver on audience participation, on the music, and on really big, bold visual images, all of which we do.
“We don’t start with a script. We have a storyboard, and we start to devise and create in the rehearsal room. From there, our writer Kevin Dyer creates a text for us, and in that way, the visual pictures are equal to the words. Very much in our minds is that question of ‘where’s the balance?’ – the light, the dark, the fun, the serious stuff… where can we make those shifts? I think that’s why the work is so exciting, because audiences are getting surprises and we’re not just presenting one type of thing.”
So once the Christmas tinsel is packed away, what’s next for Action Transport Theatre?
“We’ve developed a piece of work called Happily Ever After. It’s a fairytale based on the book King & King by Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland, about a prince who falls in love with another prince, and they get married and live happily ever after. We’ve taken it into schools alongside anti-homophobia workshops delivered by our partner organisation, The Proud Trust, and next year we’re touring it nationally into other venues too. It’s a piece of dance theatre and, like Princess and the Pea, it’s really layered so adults enjoy it as much as children.”
That’s the crux of it of course, that experience I remember so well from Unity Christmas shows gone by. While Liverpool is bursting with slapstick and silliness this festive season, sometimes it takes a show that’s a bit less childish but a bit more childlike to really bring the family together and create that delicious sense of wonderment and joy.
“That’s very much why we’re interested in creating high quality Christmas shows,” says Hajiyianni. “We know that for some people, it’s the only time they go to the theatre, so we want the experience to be really inspiring. We feel that work for young audiences should be the best kind of work that there is.”
Even for a seasoned theatre-goer, it can still be the most special theatrical experience of the year and I’m looking forward to rediscovering that much-missed sensation at The Princess and the Pea in a week or so’s time. And you know what? I bet that eventually, even my first-born will realise all this for himself.
So mark my words Unity. I promise you, one day he’ll be back.
The Princess and the Pea is at the Unity Theatre, Liverpool, from December 4, 2015 until January 9, 2016. More information: www.unitytheatre.co.uk