Kidsfest for the whole family

KidsFest offers fun and learning for youngsters, with adults in mind

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 January, 2013, 6:53pm

Anyone thinking they can tune out or quietly respond to some e-mails on their smartphone when they take their children to the upcoming KidsFest shows can think again.

To be sure, the name hardly suggests material that would keep grown-ups entertained. But the executive producer of festival organiser ABA Productions, Matthew Gregory, is determined that the five productions in this year's programme will have plenty that will engage parents too.

"I know through personal experience that if I'm going to take my children to see a show, I would like to enjoy it as well," says Gregory, who has two children of kindergarten age. "We'd like the festival to be a collaborative experience between parents and their kids. That's the whole point."

It's the second time that ABA has organised the festival, which has not only expanded from three shows last year to this year's five productions, but is also touring to Singapore.

The 2013 programme features Barmy Britain and Ruthless Romans, two hilarious shows based on British author Terry Deary's popular Horrible Histories illustrated book series; perennial favourites The Gruffalo and Room on the Broom, both adapted from bestselling books by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, as well as Mr Benn, a show built around the cartoon character created by author-illustrator David McKee.

It's no accident that Gregory is opening the festival with Barmy Britain. "As some of the reviews say, the kids probably learn more in these shows than in a whole term of history lessons. They will come out remembering some facts from here forever," Gregory says of the Birmingham Stage Company's take on the Horrible Histories.

"And parents will love them, too. They are gruesome, funny, silly, but clever at the same time."

Founder of the long-established Faust International Youth Theatre, Gregory is a veteran at staging adaptions of literary classics. He has shepherded young casts through works ranging from children's favourites such as Peter Pan to the grim fare of William Golding's Lord of the Flies.

While these sometimes featured professional actors from Britain, what Gregory really wanted to do was to put on more shows and set up ABA in 2006 to bring complete productions to Hong Kong. A well-received fortnight's run of two children's shows in early 2011 gave them the idea for KidsFest.

"Our audience had shown us that they liked this model, so we thought about developing it into a festival," he says.

Like many British-born parents, Gregory couldn't resist the gag-filled Horrible Histories plays in the West End and it was only a matter of time before he included them in the KidsFest programme.

But what of shows such as The Gruffalo, which targets audiences as young as three years old, many of whom might be seeing a stage production for the first time?

The Gruffalo remains in the realm of stories for tots even though it is an award-winning book. A brains-over-brawn tale of how a mouse invented a monster friend that was half grizzly, half buffalo to scare off forest predators, it has been translated into many languages including Chinese.

The stage version, however, reaches out to a much wider audience, says British actor James Gitsham, who's been playing the titular character in The Gruffalo for eight years and will reprise the role again later this month.

"If you get a children's show right, adults love it."

Recalling his first time performing the stage adaptation of the book, Gitsham says, "By the end of the romp, all the ushers in the aisles - usually in their early 20s - were jumping around and singing all the songs. Those were people who were jaded and had to sit through hundreds of shows a year … and it happens everywhere in the world that you go to with the show."

That may explain why stage production has travelled to Europe, the US, Canada, Australia and Asia (twice to Hong Kong ).

Of course you can always watch The Gruffalo on DVD - there's a 30-minute animated version, which takes viewers through the fantasy tale, which has only about 700 words.

However, the stage version "takes it up a notch", he says. "It uses the book as a springboard. It takes the story of the book, and then has fun … so kids come out feeling that they've been part of the show

"They all scream in unison, and they all stop at the same time … but you never get kids going mental, running up and down the aisles. They're all absolutely transfixed on the stage, they're not playing, they're not fighting, they're not doing anything else."

Gitsham appreciates how the London-based Tall Stories Theatre Company, which produces The Gruffalo, Mr Benn and Room on the Broom, has developed an "open relationship" with their young theatre-goers.

"They acknowledge the presence of the kids in the audience. They play with them throughout. They don't just say: 'Sit there. Shut up. We're going to put the show on and at the end you'll be allowed to clap.'"

Theatre provides a "communal experience" that other media such as television cannot, he says.

"Whether you're on stage in the theatre or you're in the audience in the theatre, you're part of the same thing; you're experiencing something together."

Having performed regularly in Hong Kong over the past six years, Gitsham realises how children here often lack opportunities to have fun with others.

"The after-school activities that they do are quite individually focused. Whether it's learning instruments or going to tutorials, it's often separate from their parents or other people."

So the stage may offer an alternative.

"If you can get a family going to the theatre - get the mum, dad and kids going to watch the same thing - loving it, going out to have something to eat afterwards and talking about it, it's beautiful," he says.

Gregory runs KidsFest with the same vision. "There are many, many things that can be learned - about respect for each other, about self-confidence, about working together as a team … but the number one thing is that I would like the whole family to enjoy going out to the theatre, and not just the theatre but discovering other art forms together."

KidsFest 2013, Drama Theatre, Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts; Barmy Britain, Jan 16-26; The Gruffalo, Jan 30-Feb 9; Mr Benn, Jan 31-Feb 9; Horrible Histories: Ruthless Romans, Jan 17-27; Room on the Broom, Jan 18-27; Hong Kong Ticketing , tel: 2547 7150