But you’re not six, and my kid is. And given the choice between an afternoon at Creepy Crawlies or a matinee showing of The Secret Garden at York Theatre Royal, she’d have a hard time deciding.
Okay, now I’m lying. She’d take The Secret Garden in a heartbeat, mostly because she’s currently obsessed with it, but that’s only thanks to the York Theatre Royal’s production. But a few weeks ago, she’d never been to a professionally-produced, live theatre show, and her choice would likely have been Creepy Crawlies. I mean, yeah, she’s six, but get a little cultured, kid! Sheesh, am I right? So I decided to help her out a bit, and took her to The Secret Garden. Mostly because there’s only so many more afternoons at Creepy Crawlies that my soul can endure.
Now, if I could take a moment to get a little sentimental here, I find one of the best parts of being a parent (there are lots of best, and lots and lots of, uh, less than bests) is being able to watch them experience things for the first time. Watching them process and discover and explore is like having your own private Netflix production, 24-7. I hadn’t really thought beyond, ‘oh, she’ll probably like the story so why not?’ when I got us tickets. I probably saw my first live show at about the same age, I don’t remember. But I grew up in an arts-loving household, so I’ve seen a lot of theatre, and while I can appreciate the artistry of a great show, having a knowledge of how it all works can diminish the magic. I look for markings on the stage floor that tell the stagehands where to put the next scene’s props, I strain my eyes in the darkness of a scene change to guess which characters will be there when the lights come up. It’s not cynicism, I still love the experience. But I’m a jaded adult who needs constant reminders that magic is real, especially for a child.
My daughter was swept into a magical world where the stage was both indoors and outdoors, where puppet animals came to life, and where Mary, Colin, Dickon and Ben Weatherstaff danced around a garden totem chanting magic words that had the power to summon the master of the house back from across the continent. While she did have some questions about how the set worked, and why there was grass inside the manor during the interior scenes (they’re quite literal, these children, and while their imaginations are boundless, they also seem to stumble when it comes to suspending the reality of what’s before their eyes), she fell completely in love with the magic at the core of the story. It all happened in the mysterious, magical, mirrored cube at centre stage. Its doors retract to reveal first Mr Craven’s office, then close again only to later expose the most anticipated secret garden. A small room above the cube was first, Colin’s stifling bedroom, then a summit of a Swiss mountain. Every time those doors opened, I could see my daughter leaning in with anticipation. There was magic in the cube, and in the way to story flowed out of it, across the stage and through the actors. In fact, the magic extended throughout the entire theatre, with vines and flowers hanging from the stairs and wrapping around the columns in the lobby. Everything about the production seemed to sweep her up and engage her imagination. On our walk home after the show, she stopped in the pool of light of every streetlamp in the minster yard and sang the magical totem chant while trying to replicate its dance. We watched an owl fly down from the minster roof, screeching ferociously, and she wondered if it had a message from Hogwarts. Everything a child does and sees is painted in magic.
Even Creepy Crawlies. Which is why I took her back there for the kajillionth time a few days ago. Because life can’t all be culture, can it? I can preach about the city’s walls, can bask in the temporary glow of Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre, can even demand that you give an urban shopping area made of train cargo boxes a fighting chance, but the fact is that most of us can’t be bastions of culture every day. I mean, I might watch The Handmaid’s Tale on NowTV and have lengthy despairing conversations about the state of the world, but I also still enjoy me some Pretty Little Liars on Netflix. No one’s perfect. Not me, and sadly, not my kid. So off we went to that brightly-coloured sensory-overload mecca called Creepy Crawlies. And she loves it. She’s sweaty and has a perma-grin on her face the entire time. She loves every corner of it, from the slides to the maze of ziplines and spinning obstacles hidden below, to the sand and water areas outside. And you know what, the food actually isn’t bad. Well, the coffee’s no Starbucks, but the pizza ranks well by me and my kid likes it. Anytime I can get her to finish a meal is a win in my books. If you can go with a group of friends with kids, and they’re old enough not to do themselves too much damage when left unattended, it doesn’t have to feel much different than an afternoon in the park. Slightly more humid and tinged with the scent of urine, but not bad with the right company.
And don’t worry. My kid didn’t lose all sense of culture to the bright lights and plastic joy of the place. She had her little gang of friends playing The Secret Garden in the play village area. Because they see magic everywhere.
Photos by Ian Hodgson