Childhood nostalgia and its association with the theatre stretches beyond this “90’s kid” craze and life in 2014. It is more than theatre company exploitation of our desire to relive and be reminded of more youthful times, more than our association between reenactments of fairytale classics and our childhood. Nostalgia for the past is often designed and written into the plots of our favourite works used in theatre.
Roald Dahl’s children’s stories and their romanticism of childhood continue to be popular choices for theatre companies. So much so, that in the wake of the success of both Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on the West End, What’sOnStage conducted an online poll to ascertain which of these childhood favourites audiences would like to see “get a musical makeover next”. Childhood nostalgia in such productions is two-fold: the audience delight in the journey back down memory lane prompted by these familiar titles; on another level, however, Dahl himself was addressing childhood nostalgia in the narratives.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory depicts the eccentric Willy Wonka, living in an unreal, colourful, fantastical world – seeking and trusting in children, rather than adults, as potential guardians of his factory. Whilst on the surface his life is full of fun and magic, there is something sad and sinister about Wonka’s distance from reality, his affinity with and perhaps desire to be a child again. Matilda, too, celebrates the power, strength and magic to be found in just one little girl, within a world of predominantly cruel and untrustworthy adults.
The Dickens classic, Oliver Twist, is also an immensely popular choice in theatre, garnering great success both on and off the West End. The title character is the hero and moral compass of the novel. He stands glorified and juxtaposed against the corruption and criminality he is surrounded by – a more tragic Matilda, perhaps. Each author’s work conveys to audiences across the nation ideals of childhood innocence and purity, and through Willy Wonka’s character, the strain to hold onto the joyful and carefree days of the past.
Here in York, the Grand Opera House recently commissioned a run of Peter Pan, A Musical Adventure. J M Barrie’s original play, Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, debuted in London theatre as early as 1904. Peter Pan is portrayed as a fearless adventurer, but is terrified of growing up and becoming a man. He evades the responsibilities and troubles of adult life, inhabiting an idealistic childhood dream world. Despite recent comic re-workings of the famous story for pantomime, lead actor in York’s 2013 production, Jed Berry, told The Press: “It’s a darker story than most people realise with a very sad ending for Peter Pan, who’s not able to deal with growing up.”
Whilst there is great joy in nostalgia associated with theatre adaptations of our favourite childhood tales, there is a darker side to many of their messages. Willy Wonka, Matilda, Oliver and Peter Pan all share in their characterisation a distancing from, and lack of identification with, much of the adult world around them. The creators of each character now beloved in our theatres romanticised the innocence and charm of childhood and children.
This winter, Sam Mendes’ production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory reported record-breaking ticket sales on the West End. Perhaps this is merely the mark of a successful cast and production: but it is indicative of an era of continued and renewed participation in a wistful wanderlust for a rose-tinted past.