It's rare to come across a theatre production for the very young, but Teddy Bears' Picnic declares itself suitable for children age two and up – a bold proclamation considering, I would say, the toddler market is probably the most exacting and least predictable. However, with its promise of everyone's favourite cuddly toys, as well as a picnic, puppets, 'lots of colour' and a 'musical journey', certainly for my little girl (who is two and three quarters) this show seemed like it would be a pretty safe bet.
As we approached the theatre we could see little trails of children, some even younger than two, making their way inside, all sporting that look of wonder-cum-trepidation worn frequently by the faces of the new-to-Earth. My daughter announced she was "VEWWY EXCITED!" to see the teddy bears, and so I too soon found myself feeling somewhat giddy with anticipation. We took our seats and, as I always do, performed an immediate appraisal of the set, which on this occasion comprised floor to ceiling camouflage netting, rustic wooden crates, and little tree-branch-like things. Being ever-the-sharp one, I deduced this to be the woods (I should be a detective, I know).
Before long our three actors appeared on stage: Mummy Bear, Daddy Bear, and, um, not Baby Bear but Freddy Teddy, our protagonist. Freddy is supposed to be going to the biggest event in the teddy bear calendar – the picnic – and his parents are excitedly getting him ready for the adventure; however, what Freddy hasn't dared confess (because he is too sad/embarrassed to do so) is that he hasn't actually been invited to the event. He sets off (alone, for some reason) and goes on a half-hearted journey on which he encounters some dodgy characters (a sly fox and a greedy magpie), a few cheeky fellows (a couple of squeaky squirrels and a cat and dog), as well as some magical fireflies (made real by the simple but effective use of a disco ball). Eventually, and despite taking a number of deliberate diversions, Freddy arrives at the picnic only to discover he didn't even need an invitation in the first place! Every single bear is invited by default of being a bear. Hoooorrrraay!
It does sound wonderful, doesn't it? All those animals, some singing along the way, and a great big wonderful picnic at the end…but there were a few key aspects of the production that, if your child is anything like mine, might cause some disappointment. Firstly, the costumes were very minimalist – the actors simply wore hats with ears, which wasn't enough to stop my little one asking, approximately 3,000 times out loud, "Mummy, where are the teddy bears? Where are the teddy bears, Mummy? MUMMY! YOU SAID THERE WOULD BE TEDDY BEARS!" The other animals were also depicted by a change of hat, apart from, and I would say this was the best bit, a couple of squirrel hand puppets. Secondly, the events and Freddy's emotions were described through almost non-stop dialogue and narration, rather than action or song (the music was also fairly minimal), which for some younger children might require more attention than they are capable of giving for 45 minutes (for parents, there was some clever humour and cross-references to well-known fairy tales – I had a good titter at one or two points). Thirdly, there was no picnic. NO PICNIC! The show ends just as the picnic begins, and if you have a small person who loves nothing more than to sit down with their favourite stuffed toys and pass round imaginary tea pots and tea cups and jelly and cake and sandwiches, then you might have to tend to some post-show 'dissatisfaction'.
In all, this wasn't a great experience for my daughter – she spends most of her day looking at a couple of adults jabbering away whilst wearing silly headwear, and thought she was out for something different. That said, I did see plenty of little smiley faces as we left the theatre. Ours was by no means a universal experience. I do thoroughly applaud the effort to put on a production that doesn't rely on garish costumes, slapstick antics or crowd-pleasing numbers (such as, um, the Teddy Bears' Picnic) to grab the attention of its audience. It's important that children's theatre seeks to move beyond the cliché, I think…it's just that my kid won't stand for it.