The Laurence Olivier Awards 2014 are over; Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica cleaned up, taking home five awards. Everyone seemed particularly pleased that the production started its life at Islington’s Almeida Theatre, a modest start in comparison with the other big winner of the evening, The Book of Mormon. But if it’s an underdog you’re after, there’s no smaller pup than theatre for young audiences.
In the past few years, the Oliviers have definitely stepped up their game with regards to theatre for young audiences. In 2012, the Olivier for Best Entertainment became the Olivier for Best Entertainment and Family. Matilda the Musical won seven awards – the most awards won by a single show at the time. Matilda now holds this record jointly with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, which was equally successful in 2013. Both these plays are based on books originally marketed at a younger audience.
However (and I’m sure you knew that was coming) both plays are book adaptations, as was this year’s winner of the Entertainment and Family Award, The Wind in the Willows. In fact, all the family or children’s theatre nominated in the Entertainment and Family category since 2012 has been an adaptation of either a book or a fairytale. The Oliviers do not reflect the diversity of theatre for young audiences, which is also full of new writing. Adaptations are of course more commercial and marketable, making them far more likely to appear in an Olivier-eligible West End and/or SOLT venue. Theatre for young audiences is often created by small but passionate companies on a never-ending search for funding, playing in off-West End venues. If the Oliviers are to represent the best theatre London has to offer, then it should not give a partial view.
‘Family’ is both too broad and too narrow a banner. Broad, as this year it includes both Wind in the Willows and Derren Brown, Barry Humphries and Eric and Ern – these choices reflect the paying adult’s tastes. If the only nod to theatre for young audiences comes under the banner of ‘family’, do plays have to appeal to a range of ages, including (and often especially) adults, to have value? What about, for example, the incredibly innovative performances for babies and toddlers that may hold no end of meaning for little ones but diddly squat to the average adult? And lastly, equating entertainment and family suggests that these productions should be amusing and agreeable. Some of the most thought-provoking, subtle, sophisticated, frustrating, and upsetting plays I have ever seen were for children (just look at Guantanamo Boy).
Does theatre for young audiences need awards? The great work being produced will continue to be made, I am sure. But in these times of austerity, with funding being cut and a greater emphasis on the financial impact of the arts, it could do with some recognition. Theatre for young audiences is a vibrant and integral part of the incredibly rich theatre that London (and the UK) has to offer, and, very simply, no one who loves theatre should be missing out on it.
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