By Danielle Farrow
Playwright Chris Goode has taken Karl James’ interviews with over seventy children, aged between six and eleven, and created Monkey Bars, a verbatim play, advertised as having “a revelatory twist”. This twist is, presumably, the play’s characters – adults in adult situations speaking the words of children. The main idea seems to highlight the notion that what children say deserves more attention than usually given, but the phrase ‘out of the mouths of babes’ is not new and some people feel they do not need to be reminded of this in Monkey Bars‘ manner, so this play is receiving rather a mixed reception.
In regard to performance, though, the six-strong cast are highly professional, engaging, focused, with considerable charm and different qualities of lightness and intensity that, combined with slick direction, help vary mood and pace throughout. That variation does not quite stop the piece from feeling over-long, and not all of the characters come across as adults, with some childlike tones and movements appearing. Sometimes this childlike quality draws extra laughter, but for the most part adults seeming adult – within scenes such as office meetings and breaks, and job interviews, and social occasions – reflects more strongly on the idea of the piece and works more effectively with the central power of this production.
For, ultimately, it is the knowledge that these are the words of children that holds the attention and attracts most interest, though attempts are made at keeping the set alive while these series of conversations and monologues play out. Staging uses opaque boxes lit from within and a set of headphones which is passed among the actors to signify who is the interviewer. A clothing rack, so that actors in various states of undress to start with can acquire their business suits, a bike and jelly on a plate make initial appearances, but then disappear, with only glasses and a ball coming into later use.
Themes covered include finance, religion, war, the decline of youth today, family and really important matters such as favourite sweets and superpowers. The conceit of putting all of this into an adult world opens various layers – many children speak with what they have heard from adults, so there you have the words of adults spoken by children replayed by adults – but there is also a slight feeling of imbuing children’s conversations with adult intention and meaning, especially when, as here, we know nothing really about each child‘s context.
There are certainly very striking moments, with some moving insights, and all the material is fascinating. In the end, how you react to what has been created from these children’s expressed thoughts is likely to be very subjective, but the words themselves are enough to thoroughly intrigue.