Monkey Bars, a Not Quite Review

“That is my world,” one of the performers in Chris Goode and Company’s new show gently tells us, candid but shy. She is talking about singing, her favourite hobby. One day, she continues, she just opened her mouth and discovered that this was something she was good at; “I had a voice”.

It is a poignant and strangely loaded moment in this gorgeously thoughtful slice of theatre, a gentle hour and fifteen minutes that begs us to look again at children and their view of the world. The performer in question is a middle-aged woman, dressed professionally in a crisp black suit, but her words are those of one of the 72 eight to ten year olds interviewed by Goode’s collaborator Karl James to create this delicate verbatim performance. Her one tentative admission is a reminder, like the show as a whole, that children are too often robbed of a voice, denied the opportunity to speak up.

The playing of child characters by adults is, of course, nothing new. Perhaps taking very seriously the warning never to work with children or animals, many productions feature adults who double up as kids, all too often indulging in snotty caricatures. The adults in Monkey Bars, however, are not playing children. They may be speaking the words of primary school kids, but they are demonstrably, emphatically adults. They dress as adults, they speak as adults and Goode’s production places them in conspicuously adult situations, sipping wine or getting ready for work.

Yet, for all this emphasis on adult activity, there are distinct traces of childhood about Naomi Dawson’s design. The set, with its grass-like floor, is mainly composed of large white plastic blocks that are illuminated from within, a cross between building blocks and night lights. While we usually see the performers in deliberately adult set-ups, they also occasionally sit protectively round-shouldered as they eat from lunch boxes, suddenly collapsing back into kids in the playground. The onstage props include, contrastingly, wine glasses and a bubble machine.

This mingling of the mature and the childish hints at the dizzying cocktail of these qualities in all of us, no matter how “grown-up” we may appear. It often seems as though growing up is really a process of gradually realising that we are all making it up as we go along, perpetually waiting for the moment when it all slots into place. Figured in this way, James’ young interviewees are not all that different to their adult performers or audiences.

But one significant point of difference is their lack of power to make themselves heard. As in the scenario I opened with, the frustration of not being listened to is a recurring theme and a major concern of the piece. One of the most heart-tugging monologues comes courtesy of a girl who feels “all alone in the world” when others don’t listen to her, while another child’s broken arm goes unnoticed by adults who ignore his insistence that he is in pain. The desire for superpowers becomes a motif that intermittently resurfaces, implying a fierce longing to change things without knowing how to make an impact.

Forced to listen as we are by the show that Goode has pieced together from these interviews, it is startling just how much these children have to say. While there are, unsurprisingly, some hilarious moments which verge on Children Say the Funniest Things territory, on the whole the piece reveals just how perceptive these young individuals are. Asked about their ambitions, one child wonders whether he will be a tramp or a banker, satirically remarking that they are essentially the same thing. Another two boys berate their generation in the manner of grumpy old men, tutting at girls who try to grow up too fast. Perhaps most affecting are the repeated protestations against war: “I think people should stop now – game over, you know?”

But this is more than just a vehicle for the opinions of children. As a piece of theatre, Monkey Bars is appealingly self-aware. Neatly side-stepping the issues faced by much verbatim theatre and avoiding the need for lengthy programme notes, Chris Goode and Company simply confront their process head-on. One of the first recordings we hear is that of James explaining the concept of the show to the children he is interviewing, an explanation that also conveniently clarifies the process for the audience. The actor representing James at this point adds, with a playful grin, “we’ll see if the audience finds that interesting”.

There is no doubt about whether the end result is interesting – it’s nothing short of fascinating – but as to the purposes of this piece of theatre and its success on those terms, I’m a little more tentative with my praise. Had the show zeroed in on one aspect of childhood and interrogated that individual angle using this intriguing process, it might come across as more of a complete piece, if not perhaps as meaty. Instead, by speaking to these children about such a wide range of subjects, from families to politics, Chris Goode and Company have created a view of the world that is potentially infinite and open-ended. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing – I like theatre with question marks – but it makes the piece’s process of selection and editing somewhat problematic.

This touches upon one of my issues with verbatim theatre as a form, which is something I’ve been mulling over for a while and assessing more thoroughly since seeing London Road earlier this month. It is, as a method of theatremaking, overtly “truthful”. By which I mean, because the words are purely those of the subjects, it is their truth – verbal stumbles and all – as unmediated as possible without placing them on the stage before us. It might not be a profound, universal truth, but it is truthful to the experience of those interviewees.

At the same time, however, it screams its artificiality. By being so conspicuously “real”, so hammered home with “erm”s and stammers, it simultaneously advertises the fact that these genuine, un-airbrushed words have been uprooted from their source and dumped on a stage, a transplant which implicates its process. In Monkey Bars, this process attracts even more attention to itself through the additional layer of meaning and representation created by the use of adults to speak the words of children.

So, as a result of this odd, dislocating blend of truth and artificiality, I always feel very aware of the hand of the editor. (That might also be something to do with being a writer) In this particular case, therefore, the tiny part of my brain not enraptured by the show was nagging away at me, asking what the guiding intention was behind these particular choices.

Has the material been selected in such a way as to expose how children swallow and regurgitate the opinions and values of their adult counterparts? Has the guttingly profound been favoured over the silly or mundane? Of course, this is a conversation I would need to have with Chris Goode (and one that I’d be more than happy to engage in if broached), but I couldn’t help wondering: why these stories?

Not that such doubts and questions are substantially damaging to the experience of watching the beautiful, surprisingly urgent piece of theatre that Chris Goode and Company have created. Where Monkey Bars functions perhaps most effectively is as a warning, a reminder and a bleak unveiling of the lies we have come to blindly accept with age. We can smile at childish fears and anxieties, but essentially these are smiles of complacent denial. The world is a scary place; we have simply taught ourselves not to notice.

The (not quite) End

– this is where the review proper (if it can even be considered “proper”) concludes, but there are also a few other, messier, more experimental thoughts that I felt compelled to put into words …

One of the moments in the show that most tickled me was the recording in which a girl who writes stories is asked about her writing, rendered in a scene arranged much like a television interview. It made me quietly giggle because it reminded me so much of myself as a child, always dreaming up other worlds and fiercely scribbling away, deadly serious about whatever tale I was currently spinning. Inspired by this, I found myself thinking about the child I once was, with the below result.

A letter to my younger self:

Hi there. Just me. So … this feels a bit weird. Why am I writing to you? Well, it’s a critical experiment. That probably doesn’t make much sense to you now, but it will one day. Which, I know, is one of the annoying things that adults say when they don’t feel like explaining something, but this time it’s true. Maybe I’ll explain it some time, but right now I have a couple of other things that I want to say.

I want to say that I remember that it’s hard, even though sometimes I forget and think that it used to be easy. People will tell you that it only gets harder, and that might be true, but it’s also pretty hard right now. It’s especially hard right now because people don’t always listen, but that will get better, if only by a little bit.

I also want to say that it’s good that you’ve learnt to pretend. Pretending is important. Not just because watching people pretending will one day be among your favourite things to do, but because the pretending never ends, not really. That’s the big secret. We all still feel like kids playing at being grown-up, hoping that no one will catch us out in the act of make believe.

And one day a man called Chris Goode and some of his friends will, through some pretending that isn’t quite pretending, make you realise that it’s not just you who feels that way. And it will be comforting but also a little bit heartbreaking, though you won’t be quite sure why. You’ll try writing about it anyway though, because that’s what you do.

Well … that’s all I wanted to say, really. I know that writing letters is boring and not as much fun as writing stories, but perhaps occasionally you can write back to me and remind me what it’s like to be a kid? I’d like to be reminded of that. Now you probably want to ask me what it feels like to be an adult, which seems like a fair exchange. But the answer is, I just don’t know.

Oddly, to depart on a complete tangent, writing the above reminded me vividly of Gob Squad’s Before Your Very Eyes, a piece of theatre that I think I short-changed slightly on first assessment and that has insistently stayed with me over the intervening weeks. In that show, the child performers address recordings of their younger selves, sadly, ashamedly and sometimes wistfully regarding the people that they used to be.

One of the most heartbreaking moments is one boy’s protestation that “this is not me”. In thinking back to the person I used to be, prompted by Monkey Bars to remember what it was to be a child, I was struck by how I both am and am not that wildly imaginative young person, so much like the little girl in the show who speaks earnestly about her stories. This is not a particularly original thought, but perhaps we are all a long series of different people, simultaneously embodying a number of past versions of ourselves and the person we are in the present moment. The child in us never quite goes away; it just takes an experience like Monkey Bars to be reminded of that.

The reviewed performance was at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh. Monkey Bars will continue to tour around the country throughout the autumn – full tour dates here.