“Some people expecting you to be very grown up and some people treating you like a kid”
It’s a mark of Paul Miller’s reinvigoration of the Orange Tree that it doesn’t feel too much of a surprise to hear Katy Perry and Little Mix playing in the theatre as you enter. In this particular case it is for a play for seven- to eleven- year olds but still, it feels wonderful that this artistic director has introduced this note of unpredictability to this Richmond institution.
Sarah McDonald-Hughes’ How To Be A Kid arrives here as part of Paines Plough’s trio of Roundabout Plays (along with Black Mountain and Out of Love), a co-production with Theatr Clywd and the Orange Tree which uses an ensemble of three actors to deliver three shining examples of new British writing. And as the opening salvo in the three-show press day, it proved an entertainingly strong start.
In an unassuming opening section, McDonald-Hughes captures much of the innocence of the things that provoke childhood wonder – choosing your favourite dinosaur, variety packs of cereals, trips to McDonalds, any deviation from the standard routine like baked beans on crackers because there’s no bread. And skilfully from there, she weaves a tale of how children accommodate such changes, especially when they are the result of something altogether more serious.
For due to her mother’s struggles with mental health, twelve year-old Molly has to fill in the gap, characterising it all as a series of big adventures – having to go and live in care for several weeks, returning but ending up having to act in loco parentis for her younger brother Joe. And as exciting as making a new best friend who loves Taylor Swift as much as she does is, or attempting to learn new skills like making dinner out of whatever is in the fridge, they’re also a terrible weight for someone so young to bear and James Grieve’s production captures this with sensitivity and insight.
Katie Elin-Salt is achingly moving as the wide-eyed Molly in all her slow-bubbling emotional turmoil, Hasan Dixon looks like he is living his absolute best life pretending to be a triceratops as Joe, and Sally Messham does incredibly well at differentiating any number of minor supporting characters. And even if the show is particularly aimed at seven- to eleven-year olds, it has something to say to us all – as with all the best writing for children, How to Be A Kid feels impossibly wise.