A report from the Children’s Commissioner at the end of last year found that there is an ‘epidemic of anxiety’ in young people. The number of children seeing psychiatrists has risen by a third, with the highest increase – 31% in a year – seen in those aged 9 and under. Tangled Feet and Half Moon’s timely Butterflies aims to speak to audiences within just that age bracket – 3–8 – about anxiety, through a journey taken by three friends hoping to chase their own butterflies away. Emotionally vivid and truthful, it’s very moving but also very funny.
The trio’s adventure into the unknown takes them to the edge of deep caves, to the top of high mountains, and across a wide sea, all the while showing the universality of anxiety – we all experience it, just in different ways and to different degrees. The production attests to the idea that not only is anxiety sometimes a good thing that stops us from taking dangerous risks, but that communities function better with a range of personality types – the brave and reckless need the more careful and cautious to create a group that is equally as equipped to face fears as it is to protect one another. But when anxiety does become overwhelming – when, for instance, Skipp (Tunji Falana) is too scared to even take the first step of the journey – then the support and encouragement of friends, talking your feelings through with others, and telling yourself the right things can all help.
The show was informed by Tangled Feet’s dramatherapy work with young people aged 12-14 who don’t go to school because of their anxiety: director Nathan Curry has said that these “ ‘creative consultants’ helped us understand how their anxiety started, what the shape and feel of it is for them and what their coping mechanisms are. We spent our time discussing images, metaphors and poetry surrounding anxiety in a bid to connect our creativity to their reality.” So while Butterflies utilises common metaphors for anxiety – feeling butterflies, having a knot in your stomach – it’s rooted in an authenticity that goes beyond emotional clichés to really tug at something deeper.
These metaphors also serve Tangled Feet’s visually ambitious theatrical style well: Butterflies is another beautiful production. Ele Slade’s simple set achieves so much with a tangle of rope, some strips of cloth, and a few white butterflies. Butterflies combines these visual metaphors with a physical language to externalise what can be an internal and isolating individual experience. The idea that mental health issues are a purely intangible figment of psychology is dispelled; Butterflies shows there is a palpable, painful physical reality to it.
Tunji Falana gives a completely heart-breaking, but ultimately hopeful, performance as Skipp, the most anxious of the three. He conveys such a fragility and sensitivity, his face and body contorted with fear, that you can almost see the walls of his world closing in. It’s difficult not to walk on stage, scoop him up and tell him it will all be okay.
The three share a range of anxieties, from being afraid of heights to having so many thoughts buzzing around it’s difficult to sleep, and, significantly, begin to touch on the anxiety can be impacted by gender. Holly (Sarah Templeman) starts to struggle with a cascade of whispered worries – am I popular, am I pretty – whereas Marshall (Mario Christofides) is nervous about showing any vulnerability at all.
Once again, Tangled Feet and Half Moon Theatre are creating important issue-based work for young people – like their previous co-production Need A Little Help, which focused on the experience of young carers, Butterflies shines a light on the challenging circumstances many young people are living in. There’s so much to be anxious about as a young person now, from social media to the general instability that we’re all currently living through, but levels of anxiety seem to be rising alongside levels of awareness. As someone who has had anxiety for as long as I can remember – certainly from the age of the young audience sat around me, captivated by the show – seeing Butterflies 20 years ago would have been a truly transformative experience, though watching it now is powerful enough. Ultimately, however, this show is for everyone – from those who only occasionally feel a flutter in their tummy to people like me whose belly is basically a butterfly tent – speaking compassionately to those who suffer, and showing ways to be supportive for those who don’t.
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