Since I can remember I have always loved literature and going to the theatre – so I have been aware, for some time, of Oscar Wilde’s permanently elevated status as Britain’s greatest writer/playwright of the 19th century. He is famously known for his sharp wit and cutting satire, often revealing and criticising the social, political and moral hypocrisies and injustices embedded within Britain’s social hierarchy. However, less well-known is the fact that he was also a writer of children’s stories. He was able to turn lofty moralistic arguments into light-hearted entertainment in a way that young children can grapple with. I found this an interesting and praiseworthy undertaking as it is true that children are impressionable – learning beliefs, principles and values when young – so why not spark an awareness of the need to question what is right and wrong through children’s stories.
Straight from London’s West End, The Lakeside Arts Centre hosted a performance by Tall Stories, a children’s theatre company who continuously excel in making thought-provoking family shows. Tonight, they succeeded in wholeheartedly immersing us in an hour-long compilation of The Happy Prince, The Nightingale and the Rose and The Birthday of the Infanta in which we all embarked on a quest to find a replacement statue for the crumbling one of the prince in the town square. In the running for this honour is the pompous mayor who validates himself by singing ‘It’ll be me’ – thinking that there couldn’t possibly be anyone else worthy enough, a selfish miller who exploits the good nature of a poor gardener, a lovelorn student who understands everything but love and the skill of wooing a lady to affection and the spoilt and vain princess in The Birthday of the Infanta.
The characters within these stories are brought vividly to life by the ‘Wilde Creatures’, the band of storytelling actor-musicians who brought familiar social stereotypes to the forefront. Consequently, both the stories and its characters give a plethora of warnings – to watch out for and avoid becoming self-conceited, egotistical, demanding, prejudiced and mocking. The actors complete disregard for the 4th wall (and by that I mean they openly acknowledged the audience) meant that the spectators became a part of the play – we were asked each time whether we thought the miller, student or princess made a suitable candidate for the mayor’s new statue. This immersion was eagerly taken up by the smallest members of the audience with ferocious outcries of ‘NO’ and ‘booo’ – a lovely sight that became a beacon of hope as the children’s confidence in their answers emphasised that goodness still exists in our world, especially amongst the young and by extension for the future.
Cleverly, the quartet of performers managed to maintain the emotional power of the stories yet keep the humorous and entertaining levels high. This was achieved by whisking the audience away with a several musical numbers that not only kept the show punchy but provided moments of relief that allowed laughter against the characters weaknesses to ensue. The toe-tapping, finger-clapping songs that were accompanied by a violin, guitar and clarinet made the whole experience charming and heart-warming. This in conjunction with the mayor’s personal growth from self-interest to benevolence at the end of the play, especially when he foregoes the idea of gaining a new statue and instead opens the town to the public as a play area full of wonderful flowers and sells the gold from his staff to provide for them, shows the best side of human nature, of goodwill and decency amid the darkness and corruption of the world.
With no prior knowledge of the play I was pleasantly surprised and enjoyed myself immensely. The comedy, music and darker questions made Wilde Creatures a performance for all ages and Tall Stories succeeded in bringing a show full of lifelong lessons to young and old alike. I couldn’t have asked for a more entertaining way to spend a Saturday afternoon.