Alan Brough’s new musical for children suffers from thoughtless stereotyping, says youth critic Gully Thompson
Children’s theatre is important. It acts as a doorway into adult theatre and it shapes how younger generations experience arts and culture. And like all work for children, it also plays a role in their moral education.
Charlie and the War Against the Grannies – a musical comedy at Arts Centre Melbourne by Alan Brough aimed at children five years old and based on Brough’s book of the same name – seemed to me to miss the mark, and left me feeling disturbed.
It follows the story of Charlie (Andy Conaghan or Alan Brough) and his friend Hils (Anna Francesca Armenia). While they’re looking for a paper round job for Charlie, they discover an evil plot against children perpetuated by an army of “grannies”.
The timing of this show feels unfortunate in time when aged care and elder abuse are deeply concerning issues. Some scenes – especially the climactic fight that pitches our heroes against an army of elderly people – feel very uncomfortable to watch. The plot essentially resolves in violence against elderly people, which is concerning because it doesn’t address the stigma against “grannies” that the show has set up in the first place.
Some jokes about wrinkles, walkers and dentures are clearly ageist. All in the name of a good laugh, it seems, but these stereotypes are never questioned. It feels as if the audience is being told that the elderly are there to be mocked.
There are other insensitivities. An Iraqi character named Peta, who runs a newsagency, veers very closely to media stereotypes – such as Apu in The Simpsons, or David Walliams’ Raj – of Muslim or South Asian characters running small retail businesses. Other characters joke about her diet, which include spiders and snakes, and how she doesn’t have a particularly Iraqi name. The fact that this character is played by a white woman dressed in a hijab (Julia Davis) who uses a Middle Eastern accent makes it more uncomfortable. The cultural appropriation of Peta’s characterisation feels damaging in how it plays to prevalent prejudices, especially considering the young target audience and how, for some of them, this may be their introduction to Muslim culture.
There are other notable moments that play into social prejudice scattered throughout the show – a comic scene with fat jokes about obesity in children, the use of the word “midget”, or jokes about the main villain’s Greek surname. They all feel akin to micro-aggressions.
Many of this show’s more uncomfortable moments recall the controversies surrounding David Walliams and other authors who base some of their comedy on demeaning stereotypes and insensitive jokes. Certainly, it seems clear to me that Alan Brough’s original book is written in a similar vein to Walliams’s work, as well as recalling the style of Roald Dahl.
The show has an extremely loose feel – the story seems to just shift from one set piece to another without any logical transition. The characters learn of the grannies’ evil plot, then are suddenly on their way to the grannies’ evil lair, with no logical explanation of how they come upon the location. The idea that Charlie’s parents are hooked to their phones is an important part of his character development in the first part of the show, but this thread is discarded and never resolved. Characters are introduced with little reason and left me confused about the show’s direction. To quote one of the young audience members leaving the show: “I had no idea what was going on!”
The puppets, created by the Lemony S Puppet Theatre, are well designed and suit the cartoonish, Roald Dahl-esque atmosphere of the production, but they are barely used. Often a puppet character is introduced with little logical context for its appearance and moving the puppet very little. One of the granny characters is a ragdoll kind of puppet sitting in a wheelchair who does not move at all and feels more like a prop .
The show’s musical aspect is composed and performed by Kit Warhurst. The musical pieces in the show are performed well, but succumb to a common problem in children’s musical theatre; they don’t substantially move the plot forwards or add depth to the narrative or characters. While the songs were fun and seemingly enjoyed by the audience, they often served to stretch out a joke beyond its use-by date, or even seem to be just time fillers. Some did call up a fairly engaged response from young audience members, but more often they were passively received.
Where I feel this piece has mis-stepped is in defining the form it wants to achieve. The writing and overall structure of the show seems to me like an unconvincingly strung together collection of ideas that the creators of the show thought children would enjoy. This doesn’t demean the piece of theatre – most of the audience seemed to at least partially enjoy the show and while laughter wasn’t uproarious, it was present.
Admittedly I’m not the target audience for this show’s kind of humour, story and characters, but I did feel upset by the messages and dubious stereotypes in this show. Culture for young audiences has a special responsibility in how it shapes their world, and I couldn’t help feeling concerned about the messages Charlie and the War Against the Grannies is sending. It almost seemed to me that I was watching children’s theatre from 40 years ago.
Charlie and the War Against the Grannies, by Alan Brough with Sarah Kriegler, based on the book by Alan Brough. Actor/writer/composer Alan Brough, director/co-writer Sarah Kriegler, composer/musician Kit Warhurst, set and costume design by Adrienne Chisholm, lighting design by Rachel Burke. Performed by Alan Brough or Andy Conaghan, Anna Francesca Armenia and Julia Davis. Playhouse at Arts Centre Melbourne. Until April 24. Bookings
Recommended for ages 5+
Wheelchair accessible. Relaxed Performance: Saturday 24 April, 12pm