Review: Charged: Kids In Focus Showcase, Tramshed (Greenwich Family Arts Festival)

Star Rating: ★★★★

Presented as part of Greenwich Family Arts Festival and Tramshed‘s Artist Development Programme: Progression, the Charged: Kids In Focus Showcase consisted of two unique pieces in development from a pair of emerging companies/artists, each aimed at younger audiences. The tasters both providing an interesting and imperative perspective on the emotional and mental health of children today. A particularly predominating notion in retrospect of the disruption presented by the pandemic, a child’s experience of lockdowns and restrictions inevitably being overlooked despite the detrimental affect it must have had on them and their development.

Credit: Unblurred Lines, (Photo from Tech Rehearsal)

The first piece, Exploding Emily, is a charming, tender and uplifting portrait of a child’s perspective on re-integration into society/school following the upheaval the pandemic has caused. It intuitively considers the often not observed perspective of a child and imagines the possible challenges children might face upon returning to some semblance of normality. Such as social anxiety, as they engage with more people than they have been used to, particularly classmates they haven’t seen for long periods of time, as well as the legitimate tentative nature many might have at the prospect of engaging in physical contact such as hugs, something that has been off the table for so long. The piece delicately and simply tackling the subject of body autonomy in a universally understandable and tangible way, for children and adults alike. Unblurred Lines, the company behind Exploding Emily, state that they intend to ‘create dedicated time and space in the lives of children and young people for them to discuss, and better understand, their rights and responsibilities in relationships of all kinds.’ A notion that is eloquently staged here, engendering the perfect starting point for young people in the audience and their guardians to start conversations around Bodily integrity.

The piece itself is told from Emily’s perspective in an episodic form as part of the self-titled ‘The Emily Show’, which is put on with the help of her younger sister Tilly. It employs some stunning and effortless projection work as well as sound design, playing on child-like creativity and the idea of kids having to find several different outlets for themselves whilst in lockdown. Cartoon drawings are presented by Tilly (Emma Lamond), to emphasise Emily’s thoughts and feelings and are displayed though a phone camera projected onto a white cloth centre stage. An uncomplicated yet sensationally executed and enigmatic effect. From a practical stand-point, the piece is hugely engaging due to it’s interactive, direct address nature, it’s highly conversational and makes allowances for the actors to converse with the young people in the audience, keeping them switched on and interested. Furthermore, though the piece is set in this transitional period as lockdowns begin to cease, it doesn’t set itself too deeply in the pandemic, yes there are mentions of being in and out of lockdown and finding things to do such as TikTok dances or starting your own show like ‘The Emily Show’, as well as schools being closed for a while, a few lateral flow test kits propping up the projector and hand sanitiser/anti-bacterial wipes being on hand, yet the plane of the pandemic simply makes a good landing point for the catalyst in Emily’s anxiety and ensuing emotional outburst, whilst also shedding a light on the way it has affected children’s wellbeing and making it hugely relatable for them as it resembles their lived experience, but the piece itself doesn’t dwindle too heavily on this. We wouldn’t call it a COVID play, the more important key issues such as teaching children that they have the right to choose what happens to their body and acknowledging that they can need help with their mental health too, even if this is just by having open and honest conversations with them, all becoming the prominent, overarching thematics, and could easily reside in a narrative outside of the pandemic if one so desired. These themes being delivered in a friendly, candid and often comedic way. The children behind us belly-laughing throughout, particularly due to some excellent moments of physical comedy. The show is also smoothly layered, you have the story Emily tells us, as well as the action and ‘real-life’ conversations that occur in tandem with her tale, we are therefore not only introduced to Tilly and Emily, but also their Auntie Lauren and cousin Mason who they live with. The work also subtly suggesting that families come in all shapes and sizes. We are therefore party to a fight Emily has with her four year old cousin Mason, a reflection of her wishing to be treated as an adult, or at least different to a baby, (in her eyes), like Mason, a need to differentiate herself from him. We are also provided with the opportunity to listen in to Emily’s conversation with her Auntie Lauren about how’s she’s feeling. The result is a heart warming and meaningful glimpse into what its like for a child on the cusp of so many changes, a 10/11 year old who is about to go to secondary school and wants to feel like she belongs. Emily’s meltdown, that gives the piece it’s name, is also very toddler-esque as she throws all her toys (out of her pram) well, around the stage and makes a huge mess that Tilly kindly ends up tidying. Ironic in the sense that it is the kind of meltdown you would expect from Mason, yet her apology soon shows her transgression into a kinder, more mature individual armed with the knowledge she needs to feel less anxious. The work is therefore, hugely relatable for the intended audience of 8-12 year olds and delivers it’s message with poise and precision. The only thing to be worked upon before a full staging, is to tighten up some of the quieter moments where the action dips as well as the transitions between episodes, and to enhance the technical elements for a more conducive use.

 Credit: Natalya Micic

The Loudest Mind is a joyful piece of theatre written by Laura Shoebottom that enchantingly explores the pressures placed on children to “fit in”. Vividly staging the mind-palace of a child, it uses the plane of the protagonist’s (Ezra’s) imagination to stage and explore the common anxieties of children, from the newness and unknown of a new school, to the social anxiety of interacting with new people, as well as the inherent need for a kind of ‘comfort blanket’ in a transitional period to ensure some sort of normality. The narrative follows the space-adventures of Ezra and his Ferret friend Fenton, whilst symbiotically showing Ezra facing his first day in a new school, separated from the familiarity of his bedroom and Fenton. We see Ezra flourish as he explores his imagined worlds across the galaxy with his Ferret second-in-command at his side, as well as his struggle to fit in and find his way with his classmates. What ensues is a magical inter-galactical adventure that celebrates the joy of creativity and imagination as Ezra comes into his own and finds a love of short story writing. The piece thus perfectly champions the idea that you don’t have to shout to be heard and that every child has something to offer if they are given the chance. Though aimed at younger audiences the piece can be enjoyed by adults and children alike, it has a certain sense of childhood nostalgia and paints a tender picture of the childhood innocence conjoined to the novelty of imaginary friends,but necessity of real-life friends.

From a performative point of view, the work is hugely engaging and feels as vivid and captivating as a cartoon, it employs a beautiful use of physical theatre, soundscapes and subtle changes in lighting (using more colourful hues, in contrast to the stark white of the moments seated in reality), to immerse the audience fully into Ezra’s imagination. I’m sure, from the sounds being made by the children in the room, these sections are equally as magical and enthralling from a child’s perspective. We float through space with him and Fenton, fight off evil aliens and blast off in a rocket ship before returning back down to earth in what is a wonderful use of storytelling and adventure play. The work fantastically contrasting the idea of space as Ezra’s imagination and escapism, against his return to earth and reality, somewhere he is less confident and not as able to express himself. Whilst the puppetry, performed exquisitely by Amy Bianchi, brings Fenton dextrously to life and is, without question, a highlight. The skill and precision here dominates, bringing a huge amount of nuance to the character as well as an emotive quality, as Ezra’s best-friend, he is able to listen to, support, encourage and empathise with him despite being a non-verbal character, (in a piece about not having to shout to be heard, having a non-verbal character that can be understood also does wonders to highlight the notion of non-verbal intelligence and could give any non-verbal audience members something to relate to). Fenton is also given a cheeky and playful edge, perfectly balancing the tentative and shy nature of Ezra, helping him to come out of his shell more. Similar to the sensational puppetry, is the piece’s overall slickness, the scenes effortlessly transition from imaginary adventures to reality, in these moments there are some particularly clever symbolic and visual motifs as well as a malleable use of set pieces. What is also interesting is the overall staging, Ezra’s room in central to the piece, it includes a small rocket ship that is, in reality, a play tent. The ship, as his self-engineered place of safety/comfort, remains centre stage throughout the piece, not just out of practicality, it wonderfully symbolises Ezra’s imagination and his potential, Fenton as part of this often residing within there. The school setting is thus, delivered further downstage on the left and right corners, as the outer playing space, it can also be seen as a visual representation of Ezra initially being out of his comfort zone. Performing alongside Bianchi, were Liam Ashmead (Ezra) and Laura Shoebottom (Martha), who are equally as adroit performers as Bianchi, bringing these younger school characters, (who initially clash), faithfully and energetically to life, with excellent chemistry between the two of them. Other older characters such as Ezra’s mum and their teacher, being created through a clever use of off-stage dialogue and voiceover. To conclude The Loudest Mind has immense potential as a heart-warming and meaningful piece of theatre for all ages, it is carefully written, intelligibly directed and wonderfully well performed. It most importantly has the ability to keep younger members of the audience utterly enthralled throughout.

You can find out more about Unblurred Lines’ work by clicking here and more about Laura Shoebottom‘s work here. And more about the Greenwich Family Arts Festival here.

Exploding Emily presented by Unblurred Lines: Artistic Directors – Emma Lamond & Imogen Cahill.

The Loudest Mind: Writer/Producer/Actor-Martha: Laura Shoebottom, Director: Natalya Micic, Puppetry/Fenton: Amy Bianchi, Ezra: Liam Ashmead.

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