Cowboy and Girlfriend Colin O'Brien


An interactive journey through outdoor games across the ages, created by myself and Helena Thompson for SPID Theatre Company, in London and on tour in parks around the UK.

This beautiful show (‘hardly even theatre’ according to one happy audience member) explores how children’s outdoor play has changed over time, as well as how our perceptions of childhood have changed. Uniquely, it’s built entirely on the structures and rituals of playing games – devised through many weeks of researching and playing games with the cast and local friends in our Ladbroke Grove community centre.

Childsplay is a shared journey in two strands. One strand comprises scenes of children (our actors) playing in different locations around a park. They are watched by audience members listening to an accompanying soundtrack on personal headsets. The other strand comprises a set of interactive interludes between scenes where the actors and audience talk and play together.

The scenes tell a coming-of-age story for five 12 year-old friends across the course of one glorious summer of games – but the period the children play in changes around them for each scene, covering the 1950s, 60s, 80s, 90s and today.

The soundtracks feature snatches of thoughts from the characters, sound effects, period music, and, brilliantly, memories of play and attitudes to childhood gathered from local people who played in that era. This gave us the opportunity to make the show with people who were 12 in the 1950s, 12 in the 1960s… and so on right up to those who are 12 today. When we toured the show our team visited the locations in advance to collect memories from people of all ages up and down the country, and we subsequently built new soundtracks for our touring show.

In between the scenes the audience are invited to share their own memories and join in with games, starting with skipping and clapping games and building up to getting everybody joining in with a lost Victorian rough-and-tumble combat game called ‘French and English’.

Along the way the audience of strangers becomes a community at play together, explores their local park with new eyes, and also shares their perceptions and prejudices towards how childhood has changed. In that sense it’s both a celebration of and a challenge to nostalgia. It’s fun for even very young kids, so an ideal family show, but the social message of the piece and the fun of remembering your childhood gives it a special significance for adults.

We want to do this again! For me, it was a messy slice of perfection, a piece of outdoor theatre perfectly in harmony with its environment, and I think it’s a unique proposition – using a professional theatre vehicle to explore and share local history, celebrate public space and connect people in communities. If you’re a producer interested in partnering us on Childsplay in your area, please contact me.

One of our characters, Rosie, has her own Facebook page where she uploaded pictures of the places we visited and the people who came to play on tour. Have a look here: Rosie’s Facebook page.

Here’s a trailer of our 2012 show:

And here’s what Everything Theatre had to say about it:

Childsplay is a very different and unexpected theatre experience. The set is a shopping trolley full of props and costumes, the stage a park much like any other. The cast are five energetic and youthful actors who, through some impressive costume changes, speech and play provide the audience with an insight into how twelve year old children have played outdoors from the fifties to the present day. It is a mixture of historical facts, true life testimonial, fictional story and music delivered in an outdoor space amongst the general public. In fact, the children in the park (and some of the dogs too) couldn’t help but want to join in – something fun was happening, grown-ups were dressing up and playing games and people wearing headphones were watching them!

I love the concept – exploring the way children play whilst playing outdoors is a fantastic way to bring relevance to the subject matter. The topic is clearly well researched and the use of headphones and MP3 players with synchronised starts is really very clever and brings alot of depth to the experience. It is delivered with passion and energy, it’s very interactive and the journey to the conclusion is interesting and surprising. The action moves around the park, each area representing a different era, delineating the passing of time and a new decade. The audience move along too and are at times invited to become part of the performance, joining in with games or discussing our own views and experiences of outdoor play.

I am really impressed with this production. I think it is a great idea and definitely an innovative way of delivering theatre in a public space. I would love to see this type of family friendly but purposeful theatre in my own local park (particularly as it is free to local residents!). SPID are on to a fantastic concept and I hope I will be seeing more of this ‘wraparound participatory theatre’ in the future.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>