Beginners at Unicorn Theatre – reviews round-up

Written by Flossie Waite
A Unicorn production

Playing until 15th April
For ages 9 – adult

“Isn’t this a bit challenging for children?” my companion whispers to me during a moment of black-out in Beginners. The show, one of the final productions programmed by outgoing Artistic Director Purni Morell, is a defiant response to this perennial question: Morell’s success at the Unicorn has been fuelled by her belief that theatre for young people is as valid and artistically challenging as mainstream theatre.

Photo: Hugh Glendinning

Morell’s ambitious steerage has seen children’s theatre become an event, and there is no hotter ticket in town than Beginners. As a long-time reviewer of theatre for young audiences, I’m often one of only a few voices responding to a show. This is not the case for the Unicorn’s productions: the coverage from blogs, online magazines and mainstream publications, and the conversations happening across social media, is heartening and vital to the sector, and hopefully – eventually – replicable in the broader TYA field. Even by Unicorn standards, the attention that Beginners has attracted is remarkable. To celebrate the Beginners buzz, this is a round-up of the responses so far…

Rosemary Waugh for The Stage sums up the play’s premise neatly: “Tim Crouch’s new play for children and adults is set on the classic British summer holiday. The weather’s damp and awful and traffic jams clog the roads as three families return to their regular West Country haunt. Four children pass the time confined to a bedroom, bored and bickering… Their quest for entertainment eventually leads them to stage a play for their largely unseen parents.”

My companion’s whispered worry about children’s capacity to interpret was apt, if not in the way he intended: Beginners is a surreal, sophisticated piece which explores the ways adults underestimate young people, and misjudge the distance between being a grown-up and being a kid. The show’s disorienting opening immediately levels the playing field  – as a theatre maker, Crouch, Miriam Gillinson in Time Out reminds us, “likes to tease his audience… and generally mess with our heads”. Both adults and children experience a similar struggle to understand what’s going on in a show that sees “Dogs behave like humans… children act like adults, adults act like children”. On her blog The Play’s The Thing, Laura Kressly finds that this “deliberate lack of clarity as to whether the characters we watch are adults or children, and a cast composed of an adult and children set, serves to remind us how similar our wants and needs are, no matter how old we might be.”

Photo: Hugh Glendinning

The “wafer-thin divide between childhood and adulthood” (Gillinson) isn’t the only theme in this complex and cleverly-written play. For Waugh, Beginners “is as much about friendship as families” and the “concept of change – including a strong fear of it – is a constant theme.” “It doesn’t shy away from horrible, adult issues like the ends of relationships and serious illness” Kressly writes. This is a play in which “death begins to stalk the stage” (Gillinson), but not just the terminal illness of mum Maddy. For Lyn Gardner writing in The Guardian, “Beginners operates like a mischievous yet emotionally textured murder mystery, but one without a body. It investigates how childhood gets killed.”

If it’s all starting to sound a bit glum, don’t fear: the show is ultimately hopeful, suggesting, according to Gardner, “that the creativity of rising generations may yet save us all while the adults are down the pub”, and that “Watching it… we expand our belief in what’s possible and how we can overcome what life throws at us.” Beginners will make you laugh and cry: @miriamgillinson tweeted that she was “Bursting with joy and weepiness” following the press performance, while @ElizabethTwells was both reduced to tears and cried with laughter, and @Gilltopia shared “Actual footage of my reactions: Screen Shot 2018-03-31 at 13.44.41

Beginners really is very funny, managing that tricky task of making both adults and young people laugh without patronising either audience;  Hannah Powell in The Reviews Hub isn’t wrong when she writes that the laughter just doesn’t stop. Waugh picks out Amalia Vitale’s “wonderfully surrealistic performance as the dog Sandy, particularly when delivering Beckettian monologues of the canine’s inner thoughts – a characteristically Crouch moment of humour”. There’s plenty of praise for this performance – Vitale is “dazzling” according to Gillinson,  and “brilliant” Gardner agrees – but the most consistent namecheck is for designers Chloe Lamford and Camilla Clark, whose set design “perfectly encapsulates both the cramped space of [the children’s] holiday bedroom and the vastness of their imaginative play” (Powell). “Psychotropic” (Waugh) and “bold, colourful and booby-trapped” (Gillinson), the “Alice in Wonderland-esque design elements and detailed costume choices enhance ambiguity and draw attention to the joy of discovery and playing make-believe, tapping into the children within all of us” (Kressly).

Photo: Hugo Glendinning

Though aimed at audiences aged 9+, it’s this multi-generational appeal that many critics find particularly successful: Alex Wood’s Theatre Bubble review says the show “works for all ages”, “it reaches across the generations… and touches us all” (Gillinson), and is “written so cleverly in a way to not only entertain younger audience members but also keep the adults present engaged as well.”

So, is Beginners any good? Immediate responses to the show on social media are so glowing they might just be visible from space. To give only a few examples from the many, @offstage_UK called it a “masterpiece”, @smartgiles said it is “one of the best things I’ve seen at the theatre”, it’s “TYA at its finest” according to @LayoChristina. @leelyford said the show “Deserves to be seen by every adult and young person”, and @NaomiSheldon1 urged followers to “Do your souls a favour and go.”

Not everyone is so keen, however. The Stage gave the show a cool 3 stars, with Waugh saying Beginners is “stymied… by being almost too good at recreating the stasis and boredom that permeates childhood holidays. It also seems more like a play written for adults to understand the children they once were, than for kids to understand the adults they’ll become.” The first few lines of Dominic Maxwell’s 2-star review in The Times (the rest hidden behind a paywall) laments that even “terrific acting cannot save this tale of a rain-sodden holiday in Cornwall in which too little happens”.

But these appear, so far, to be the only negative responses in a clutch of wholly positive reviews – Powell liked the show so much it “could easily and happily warrant a second viewing.” “This is what children’s theatre can and should be” Kressly concludes, but for Gillinson, who awarded Beginners 5 stars, this stand-out production transcends the realm of theatre for young audiences as “one of the liveliest and sharpest pieces of theatre you’ll see this year” full stop.

As much as I enjoyed the play itself, my experience has been enriched immensely by the hype surrounding it: a piece of theatre aimed at young audiences is getting the response it deserves.

Children’s Theatre Reviews exists to help plug the gap in criticism and writing about theatre for young audiences. It is run entirely voluntarily, and needs support to continue covering and supporting the sector. For more information and to help give children’s theatre the voice it deserves, please visit our Patreon page.

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