Written by Frankie Roberto
Most of the productions reviewed on this website, particularly those aimed at very young audiences, are either original productions, or book adaptations. Two shows on tour this year though are presented instead as ‘live’ versions of popular CBeebies shows: Bing and In the Night Garden. Both are produced by the same company, Minor Entertainment, under licence from the production companies of the TV shows. The company’s vision is to create “family theatre events”, which gives a clue as to how they approach their shows: as more than just a theatre performance.
In the Night Garden Live has toured for several consecutive summers now, and takes place inside an inflatable “showdome”. The booking experience is nakedly commercial, with complicated “pre-sale” offers (“buy a £7 voucher for £1”), a “premium” seating tier, and plenty of up-selling promotions. One opportunity to extend the show into an event is a “meet and greet” slot with either Iggle Piggle or Upsy Daisy after the show. This sounds like it is impeccably managed (no need to queue, they’ll call you) and includes a printed photograph, but certainly makes it a more an expensive outing.
Arriving at the venue, there are opportunities to spend additional money at a shop selling snacks and all the merchandise you could want – however you do get given a free programme, which may be enough to keep little ones occupied if you’re early. All this pre-show activity does create a certain amount of buzz, and given that it might be lots of little ones’ first theatre trip the comfort of the ample space and toilet/changing facilities is welcome.
Inside the egg-shaped auditorium itself, things are equally comfortable, with raked wide steps rather than seats, so that toddlers can stand up and jump or move around without blocking anyone’s view. As to the performance itself, well, it almost exactly mirrors the TV show, albeit slightly longer, and featuring all of the characters rather than just a few. One of the wonderful quirks of the show is that it constantly plays with scale, a trick that’s easier to pull off on camera than in real life. This is replicated in the live show through the use of both puppets and actors in costume, with the same characters appearing at different sizes at different points. Another way that the live show directly follows the television show is through the use of pre-recorded voiceover rather than any live speech. This is excusable, as the TV show is exclusively narration: it’s hard to imagine anyone being able to replicate Derek Jacobi’s dulcet tones, and it adds to the feeling of comfort and familiarity.
Given that In the Night Garden has consistently been part of the pre-bedtime schedule on CBeebies for a decade, and for many young children is as much a part of their routine as bath-time, it might feel a bit odd to be watching it at 11am. However the novelty of seeing it live, and with a big audience of other toddlers, keeps everyone more than awake and engaged. When each of the characters do their welcome song-and-dance (twice), a good proportion of the audience are on their feet joining in – so make sure you’ve got those Macca Pacca lyrics and moves memorised.
Bing Live is aimed at a slightly older, but still preschool audience, and instead of having its own transportable arena, takes place in traditional theatre auditoriums. It too has an extensive pre-show merchandise offer (and balloons for sale after), but also hands out free Bing cardboard bunny ears to keep everyone happy.
Where In The Night Garden Live is able to, in some cases, use identical costumes from the television show, Bing is translating 3D animated characters. The answer again is puppetry, only here with the puppeteers also doing live voice acting. It works well, and where adults might take a while to focus on the puppets rather than their masters, toddlers seem to get it immediately. As far as they’re concerned, it is Bing and Sula and Coco on stage, and not the many adults controlling them (these are complex puppets).
Unusually for a pre-school show, Bing Live has an interval. The first half depicts the characters learning about “the theatre” itself, whilst the second half is them putting on a show. There’s plenty of audience participation moments, and nearly all the characters from the TV series appear at some point. In an echo of the format of the the TV show, there’s also toddler conflict resolution moment where Bing gets upset and has to be reassured by the ever-patient Flop.
Where Bing Live really shines is as an early introduction to the magic of theatre, demonstrating the mechanics of stage curtains, the joys of dressing up and storytelling, and even the conventions around final bow applause. Whilst the show leans heavily upon the familiarity of the much-loved TV characters, it encourages toddlers to use their imaginations in performing their own stories.
As this website demonstrates, there is no shortage of good quality, original children’s theatre productions for preschool audiences taking place in venues around the country, often in small community or non-profit theatres. So it’d be easy to be cynical about these two shows capitalising upon popular television series in order to produce highly commercial, slickly run experiences. But they’re a great way to attract families to theatre, and help to get across the idea that theatre can be magical for children as young as 12 months old.
For the toddlers themselves, the crucial difference between these and other shows is that their main delight comes from the recognition of characters and narrative moments they are already intensively familiar with, rather than the novelty and surprise of an original show (which can be equally rewarding). And whilst for parents, the idea of paying (quite a lot) to see a close facsimile of a TV show your child watches for free every day might not seem appealing, the joy on your child’s face when they see their favourite character makes the whole experience worthwhile.
Frankie is a freelance Creative Technologist and theatre lover from London. Follow Frankie @frankieroberto.