Did you ever see the programme Zzzap!? It was a bizarre, thrillingly unsettling, brilliant sort-of sketch show on CITV, a televisual comic book that wordlessly moved between segments like The Handymen (bodyless Marigolds making stuff), Smart Arty (aka the legendary Neil Buchanan, whose drawings leapt off the page and into real life), and Tricky Dicky (accurately described here as “basically the Babadook in a trench coat”). It was slapstick, it was silly, it was surreal and it made no sense. Part of the fun of watching was knowing that parents probably wouldn’t ‘get it’, that somehow this odd programme had been commissioned that appealed directly to the millions of us that watched on the sofa in-between our after-school snack and before our dinner (I honestly still can’t quite believe it aired for almost a decade).
Double Double Act feels like the live-action version of that zany show. While there is plenty for both adults and children to enjoy, it’s interesting to see a play that unashamedly and predominantly caters to young people’s sensibilities in a way that just might leave grown-ups completely baffled (leaving, I overheard one teacher say to the other, “Well, the kids obviously enjoyed it, but did you have any idea what that was all about?”)
Like Zzzap!, it is very visual and physical, zipping between sketches that have the performers one moment creating evil potions in a zombie-Stepford-wife parody of a Blue Peter Make, and the next zooming around the stage in a high speed chase, driving one of those little toy Coupes and the bottom of a wheely chair.
Unlike Zzzap!, Double Double Act isn’t wordless: it is in fact, as our hosts Chris and Jessica tell us, “a play on words”, a production about puns. Comedy double act Chris (creator Christopher Brett Bailey) and Jessica (Jessica Latowicki) open the show with some quick fire wordplay and a dance, but their shtick is interrupted with the introduction of two mini-mes (played on press night by Caitlin Finlay and Caspian Tarafdar), a couple of children who look identical to their adult counterparts and begin to re-perform their routine. What follows is a tussle for airtime, as both duos struggle to hold the stage, sabotaging and occasionally supporting each other, finding the similarities and differences between childhood and adulthood whilst sceptically probing what either of those states even mean/are, and ultimately subverting expectations.
This Unicorn and Made in China production obviously isn’t a tea-time kids’ TV programme: it’s theatre and it knows it. More specifically, it’s children’s theatre, and it knows it. Double Double Act grapples on-stage with the ideas that any theatremaker creating work for young audiences grapples with off-stage. In their opening duologue, Chris and Jessica argue about who the show is for: the adults in the audience (“You gotta play to the ones who pay”) or the children (“I play to the ones who pay attention”). They question the language they can use – nothing too rude, or too complicated, in case they teach bad language to, or confuse, their young audience. They restrict the things that can happen, including that children are not allowed up on stage. Chris and Jessica’s supposed thoughtfulness about their audience is rooted in their supremacy over it; as adults, they are “better than them, and smarter than them”. And then the two children appear on stage, breaking the censorship spell; in playing by the rules of this sensible, idealised, inoffensive space, they show how little relationship it has to the real world. Caitlin and Caspian won’t say certain things on stage either, but not because they don’t know them or because they’re polite, but “because we’re not allowed to say the things we usually say”. And the rule that prohibits children on stage, presumably because it is potentially hazardous and they are either unpredictable or unprofessional? Well, that one’s out the window.
Double Double Act is aware of the unacquainted outsider’s assumptions about children’s theatre: that it’s full of slime and fart jokes. Double Double Act IS full of slime and fart jokes (there is no denying that the audience bloody loves them), but the show manages to include those things whilst also cleverly commenting on what we as adults want from, and accept in, entertainment aimed at young people, and whether what we want and accept should have any influence at all. (Here again, with the slime machine, Double Double Act reminds me of classic late afternoon viewing in the ‘90s, with the audience electrified at the prospect of kids getting one over on the grown-ups a la Dave Benson Phillips’ seminal series Get Your Own Back).
In children’s theatre, it’s rare to have actual children on stage – I think I’ve only ever seen one other production with child performers, the Norwegian company Hege Haagenrud’s The Jury. Like The Jury, the children of Double Double Act helped to create the show and are performing “as themselves”. Like The Jury, Double Double Act in part explores how young people can be involved in the creative process, how theatre can ensure their needs and preferences, defined by them, are met and their voices are heard. But like The Jury, their inclusion in the show throws up some of the same issues – however natural they seem, this is not their authentic voice; their performance is central to a production conceived of, and controlled by, adults, their speech and movement is at the very least okay’ed by an adult director, and at the most a response to adult direction. They and their unpolished performance, as they stumble over words for example, are part of the joke, at least for the adults in the audience.
However, where the two plays differ is that Double Double Act is more open and honest about the challenges of including child performers. There’s a scene in which Jessica and Caitlin do the exact same cooking routine, except as a child Caitlin is able to more openly copy what Jessica is doing, and to find creative ways to cut corners. Unable to crack an egg or peel a banana, Caitlin just smashes the egg on the table and throws the fruit into the blender whole, while Jessica looks across grumpily, jealous that Caitlin has the freedom to perform in a less pressurised, unperfected way. When Caitlin says that there’s no place in children’s theatre for existentialism, the script quickly checks any assumption that the only humour here is the idea of a kid using long words they don’t understand: Caspian is quickly allowed to ‘own’ the joke, turning the definition into a pun, “exit-stench-ialism” (which involves the performers leaving the stage and, of course, farts).
Whilst the child performers are at times, unavoidably, the object of the joke, adults aren’t let off the hook. There’s a moment in Steven Spielberg’s 1991 film Hook when Robin Williams tells off his son for being childish, and the child quite rightly responds, “But I’m a child”. There’s something about that in Double Double Act too: the show pokes fun at the way that adults want children to behave and act, and how we hold an idealised version of what childhood should be in our head, which often shares very little resemblance with the reality of being young. The children only become acceptable and appealing to Chris and Jessica when they are being cute and quiet; the only time the adults really tolerate their presence on the stage is when Caitlin and Caspian are silently walking across it, holding big pictures of fluffy animals whilst smiling sweetly.
Adults can go to ridiculous lengths to protect their idea of children, even when they are faced with an actual child. At one point, Caitlin ventures out into the aisles and, with wide-eyed faux innocence, picks on an adult to answer questions like, “Where do babies come from?” and “What’s it like being so old with all this news?” It’s perversely delicious watching that person squirm, as they try to veil their answers with innuendo in order to satisfy what the other adults would like them to say, rather than offering honest answers to a child who is probably clued up on reproduction and the shitty stuff that’s happening in the world at the moment.
Double Double Act works best when it is being bonkers. There are some sincere, serious exchanges that attempt to more obviously ask for empathy, for children and adults to see the world from the others perspective, but they impart their message less effectively than jokes about breaking wind and kids dressed up as fruit. Very quickly, the young audience are like one of the schools participating in the CBBC gameshow 50/50, throwing their arms in the air and their support behind their child representatives on stage, in a permissive atmosphere that makes it clear early on that enthusiastic involvement is encouraged. Double Double Act’s weirdness and wackiness, at the risk of being inaccessible to adults, prioritises “the ones who pay attention” and allows them to respond and behave however they want. So, like Zzzap!, once seen it will never be forgotten.
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