For the Unicorn Theatre to host Chris Goode’s play is an interesting departure. This is, after all, a purpose-built playhouse for children and young people: its main programme caters to ages from two to 21. But Monkey Bars is a play for adults. It is its content that makes it such a good fit here: the show, an award-winner at last year’s Edinburgh Festival, compels adults to listen to children by the simple device of putting their words into adult mouths. It sounds whimsical and potentially rather cute, but in practice it proves funny, revealing and sobering.
Goode worked with Karl James, whose work as a mediator involves a great deal of listening. He recorded 72 children under the age of 11, then Goode mounted some of their conversations in short scenes depicting standard encounters in the adult world – the job interview, the therapy session, the wine-bar chat. The six-strong company delivers them, dressed in standard adult work uniform of white shirt and black trousers. The result proves quite astute about adult behaviour – you realise how many apparently grown-up conversations are very similar to those held by children. One highlight is the job interview, in which a panel of board members fires absurd questions about sweeties at a nervous would-be employee. One interviewer narrows her eyes and leans forward gravely. “If you were a bubblegum creature, what would you do?” she asks pointedly.
There’s gentle humour in the shape of one tousle-haired musician who serenades a green jelly. But the show can also be very telling as it both demonstrates children’s reading of the adult world and the attitudes they pick up and offers painful glimpses of their own difficult experiences. Two men sit on a park bench tut-tutting over the shortcomings of the young: the “inappropriate clothing”; the “disappointing” behaviour. “Our generation should just generally improve,” they conclude – and you have to struggle to remember these are the words of small boys. Meanwhile one lad casually reveals the brutal relationship between his quarrelling parents and a little girl quietly rationalises her lack of contact with her estranged father.
Acted with wit and generosity by the cast (Philip Bosworth, Angela Clerkin, Jacquetta May, Christian Roe, Gwyneth Strong and Gordon Warnecke), this is a surprising and poignant show that explores the links and the gaps between adults and children, and reminds us that we should both speak, and listen, with care.