‘No, wait, I mean’ – the interviewee begins to fidget nervously as they try to rectify their obvious mistake. The panel’s expression has turned from polite curiosity to inevitable disappointment, and their unfortunate subject can sense the job opportunity riding away on the back of one poorly considered answer. ‘I mean’ – the pause lingers, the interviewee licks their lips – ‘if I was a bubblegum creature, I wouldn’t melt because I would have a hard, bubblegum shell.’
Such is the continued dualism of Chris Goode’s play Monkey Bars, which takes interviews with over 70 children aged between seven and ten and places them, verbatim, into adult contexts, ranging from job interviews and political debates to bars and restaurants. While the language may be juvenile, the questions posed by the script are certainly more mature in nature. Siwan Clark, directing the production running at the Burton Taylor Studio from the 18th-22nd November, says that one of her motivations in choosing to stage the play was investigating the peculiar convention that children form the one societal group of which it is acceptable to say casually that you dislike them or don’t care about them. Monkey Bars directly challenges this prejudice, calling the audience to question precisely what it is about children and their way of communicating that means that they are not taken seriously. The darker side of leaving vulnerable members of society without a voice takes on a new and more disturbing resonance in light of recent child abuse cases, making Monkey Bars particularly current in its concerns.
Of the few scenes that were shown at the preview, perhaps the most striking was the one in which the child’s interview is transformed into a discussion with a writer, talking about the inspiration behind her novels. In most of the other scenes the language used was clearly at odds with its context, but there were moments here where I almost forgot that I was listening to a child’s voice. It would only take a little altering to believe that you were watching a chat-show celebrity interview about the release of their new novel or autobiography, subtly highlighting the injustice of assuming that children are less insightful than their elders.
As in all the scenes shown it seemed that the cast were more at ease inhabiting the children’s roles than their adult counterparts, which is my only reservation about the all-student production. In the original 2012 staging which played to rave reviews at the Edinburgh Fringe, the cast were entirely middle-aged, putting plenty of years between themselves and the interviewees. The appearance and demeanour of the considerably younger actors, whoever, often meant that I felt like I was witnessing a secondary school lunch break rather than a meeting between adults, losing something of the bathos required for the premise to remain effective. The age difference somewhat re-situates the effect and function of the script, with the cast not only young enough for their childhood experiences to be in recent memory, but also more likely to have a less child-friendly attitude than actors with families of their own. Part of Siwan’s aim with choosing this particular play for a student production is to try and ‘dislodge such prejudices as they form’, but this can only really happen if the cast take command of the language and childlike mannerisms, as they did brilliantly in the political debate scene, without acting like children and thus compacting the association of certain words with certain physicalities rather than critiquing them.
The intimacy of the Burton Taylor studio should suit the play’s swift interplay of poignancy and hilarity perfectly, particularly with the planned minimal staging with props only drawn onto black boxes in chalk. From the snippets presented for preview, Monkey Bars appears as one of the more unusual plays that I have seen performed recently, and I look forward to seeing how all the scenes come together in their final incarnation. A challenge for both actors and audience, this production has the potential to strike surreptitiously at the heart of our assumptions about adulthood and suggest some very unexpected answers to the question: what would happen if we listened to children as if they were grown-ups?