The kids are all right. Oh no they're not

Children get a bad deal in the theatre at the best of times and Christm as is the worst of times, writes Tim Supple, artistic director of the Young Vic ; 'tis a season to be vacuously jolly with cannibalised plots, lazy direction a nd celebrity casts \

Children should be offered the best we can give. Few people would disagree with this and good theatre is produced for children all over Britain throughout the year. However, and especially at this time of year, a remarkable amount of bad theatre i s forced on children. Moreover, the adult theatre is rarely as bad as children's fare can be; and children's theatre is rarely as good as the best offered to adults. Children should be offered serious theatre: a full repertoire of work of all kinds - con temporary and classical, devised and scripted, of easy pleasure and intense meaning - created with the highest artistic intentions. This is what we give ourselves; so why do we settle for less for our children?

Perhaps because children are a guaranteed and lucrative audience who go to the theatre in their thousands on the advice of other people (a bit like tourists, although tourists have some choice in what they see). Many theatres and producers make a lot of money from Christmas shows and where profit is certain, laziness will want to follow. In England (this is less true of Scotland) the pantomime is too often a dustbin for low standards of performance, writing, design, music and direction. Short r ehearsalperiods, small vision, big ego, long run: big money. Bits and pieces borrowed from the true pantomime form, variety, pop and television are thrown in to ruin wonderful folk and fairy stories. In the worst cases English panto simply exploits and insults its audience. In what other circumstances can we imagine sports stars taking the place of actors?

"But they love it" I will be told of the audience. Maybe so, but that doesn't make it good theatre. I could imagine Ian McKellen playing cricket at the Oval for a one-off charity match; but for a whole season with Surrey? The sporting world has too much respect for itself and its supporters.

"But they love it." It's a cry which lies at the root of so much poor quality in children's theatre. However bad a piece of theatre looks to me, when asked "Did you like it?" I have never heard a child say "No". The experience itself is electric for children: waiting in the foyer, sitting down, the empty stage or closed curtain, the dimming light, backstage - and if they get to laugh and shout, even better.

Perhaps later a longer discussion will reveal true feelings, but we in the theatre only hear "They love it!". Every time we hear it we are flattered and relieved and forget that this is what we always hear. We must look for the difference between superficial pleasure and real, lasting effect. The point here is not that I would wish children to be denied any pleasure, however superficial I may feel it is, but that they must be offered a different experience of theatre as well. The experience of theatre that corresponds to their deeper, more difficult and dangerous thoughts and feelings. If all a child finds in the theatre is life-never-quite-taken-seriously, then no wonder most people are uninterested by the time they are teenagers.

So how do we tell the difference between what is deep and lasting and what is superficial? With difficulty, obviously. One of the hopes behind the Young Vic's Grimm Tales is that if we allow ourselves to be guided strictly by the stories themselves, we may learn some answers to that question. When children are read Ahsputtel (Cinderella), all they need is for it to be told well. Their pleasure does not rely on funny voices or faces, contemporary characterisations, sentimentality or censorship of violent or frightening passages. So why should such approaches be necessary in the theatre? The stories are extraordinary and, if dramatised faithfully, precisely, seriously and well, they will correspond to feelings children struggle with all the time. Childre n have a fear of abandonment and of the terror they would face as a result. Sometimes their mother is an object of this fear. But the fear is also a pleasure, a source of fantasy and adventure. Hansel and Gretel brings the imaginative world to life brill iantly, and on the stage, as on the page, children can take it undiluted. Only adults think children need gags, colour and razzmatazz. And only adults think children need contemporary reference, issues and characterisation.

They may like these qualities and should be given them, but they must also be offered worlds that are secret, mysterious and unlike life as it is. In the Grimms' stories we find life as it feels, which is every bit as important and real to the child.

I know children as young as three who are enthralled by The Lion King. It gives them characters and situations to act out and sparks fantasies and emotions. Yet if seems to me that the impact of The Lion King is superficial while that of the story of Hansel and Gretel, told well, is lasting. It is the experience of The Lion King that impresses, of the film, the colour, the fights and emotions stirred, but it is the story of Hansel and Gretel that sticks in the mind. The story of Hansel and Gretel is weak, a patchwork that includes Hamlet and Macbeth. Furthermore, however many millions see The Lion King, many more millions will have heard a version of Hansel and Gretel told with its inherent, fierce economy intact.

The surest indication of the difference is merchandise: if the stories are told in their true force there is no desire for it. Simba, Scar, the Seven Dwarfs, Beauty and her Beast, are animated in a way that makes the child greedy for objects to tickle the memory. But the witch in Hansel and Gretel is too fearsome, too seminal, too likely to pop up in the form of one's own parents. She is not suitable for merchandise and is best kept to the limitless terrors and pleasures of the mind and the playground. It is in the very nature of characters like Hansel and Gretel that they are unsentimental, basic, archetypal. They are unfit for plastic dolls; like Jack and Jill they live only, but brilliantly, on the page and perhaps, for a m o ment, on the stage.

Children are not imbeciles: theatre should not treat them as if they were.

For details see listings below TEN CHRISTMAS SHOWS WORTH TAKING YOUR CHILDREN TO (AND HARDLY A DAME IN SIGHT)

Aladdin Unicorn, London WC2 (071-836 3334). To 22 Jan Forget the pantomime, forget the Disney movie, this is Aladdin taken back to its roots: the tale of a magic lamp. Unicorn Theatre, a pro children's theatre, knows how to pitch a show.

Babes in the Wood Sadler's Wells, London EC1 (071-278 8916). To 22 Jan.

Pantomime as it is meant to be at the theatre where the genre was spawned 250 years ago. Roy Hudd's show promises lots of slapstick plus a real dame, Jack Tripp, in his 43rd season.

Beauty and the Beast Citizens Theatre, Glasgow (041-429 0022). To 14 Jan The Citz is on good form with Shaun Prendergast's contemporary spin on an old favourite, which warms up into a blisteringly good production.

Christmas Carol Barbican Theatre, EC2 (071-638 8891). To 11 Mar.

Our critic, Paul Taylor, suggested that only tear gas cannisters fired directly on to the audience could have elicited wetter cheeks than John Mortimer's sugar-coated adaptation of Dickens' most sentimental tale.

Cinderella Contact Theatre, Manchester (061-274 4400). To 14 Jan Playwright Stuart Paterson - the northern champion of children's theatre - makes our Cinders a tough, spirited little cookie who teams up with a kitchen boy to knobble her rotten family.

Grimm Tales Young Vic, SE1 (071-928 6363). To 21 Jan.

Tim Supple (see feature above) has gone back to basics with old stories like Hansel and Gretel that dare to respond to children's often bloodthirsty desire for poetic justice.

Peter Pan Birmingham Rep (021-236 4455). To 28 Jan.

Award-winning director Anthony Clark marshalls a cast of 32 in the original Edwardian version.

Cambridge , London WC2 (071 494 5080). To 21 Jan Ron Moody is Captain Hook in the British musical.

The Secret Garden Watermill, Bagnor, Berks (0635 46044). To 14 Jan.

Charming musical version of the tale of the embittered girl who returns from plague-stricken India and finds a new life and happiness in Yorkshire.

Whistle Down the Wind: Riverside Studios, W6 (081-741 2255). To 31 Dec.

Three kids find a man in the barn and think he's Jesus in the touching if cutesy tale of the film (of the book by Hayley Mary Bell). The National Youth Music Theatre's production.

The Wizard of Oz Theatr Clwyd, Mold (0352 756331). To 21 Jan.

Theatr Clwyd goes down the Yellow Brick Road using the RSC's version of the film. So you know what you're letting yourself in for: a gloriously Technicolor experience.

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