The Childrens Monologues- Old Vic – 14 November 2010

(Photo credit: Simon Annand)

So last night I headed off to the Old Vic to watch The Children’s Monologues, a charity gala performance organised by Dramatic Need. Dramatic Need work with impoverished children in South Africa and Rwanda sending volunteers who are professionals in the creative arts to host creative workshops with children in rural villages. The gala consisted of a series of monologues (performed by a stunning cast) which were based on the personal testimonies of the children helped by Dramatic Need who had been asked to remember the happiest or saddest time in their lives.

The writing was universally superb. Every monologue grabbed the audience’s attention – there was no filler or duff moments here. The monologues ranged from light hearted tales of birthday parties and the joy of birthday oranges, to a redemptive tale of a gangsta done good to absolutely harrowing, brutally raw stories of rape and violation delivered with such emotional force that the audience was left absolutely reeling. I’ve never heard an audience go from racuous laughter to being able to hear a pin drop in a matter of minutes before.

Given that we were told by the organiser that the performers had only come together for the first time at 10:00 a.m. that morning to rehearse the piece I was hugely impressed at how incredibly strong the vast majority of the performances were (there were one or two exceptions – seems churlish to name them but the performers in question were barely audible from my seat in the dress circle and one literally sat and read from her script).

Personal highlights for me were:

Eddie Redmayne playing a young boy deliriously excited at the prospect of turning 7 and all the wonders his birthday party will bring. Redmayne has wonderful stage presence and his excitement and enthusiasm was completely infectious leaving me with a huge grin on my face.

Ben Kingsley (clad in rather fetching blue pashmina) retelling the tale of a young girl who was gang raped on Christmas Eve. His performance was simply astonishing – so raw, shaky and emotional channeling this young girl it was incredibly difficult to listen to him at times. His performance left me feeling emotionally drained.

Lucian Msamati (performing one of the few monologues not told from a child’ perspective) as the over protective father providing his daughter with his many, many, many pearls of wisdom on her first day of school. Amusing and heartwarming.

Charlie Cox performing a short but amusing monologue (complete with audience participation!) about a young boy hugely excited to be taking part in a maths contest.

Wunmi Mosaku (in what was for me the stand out performance of the evening) telling the tale (The Outside Child) of a young very sweet girl whose excitable birthday preparations are interrupted by the arrival of 4 squatters who beat and rape her. Never has the simple motion of 4 men walking on stage and stopping been so heart-stoppingly terrifying. It was an extraordinary piece of writing matched by a stunning performance. It starts with the young girl’s sweet excitement about how amazing her birthday is going to be before taking a deeply distressing turn with the terrifying arrival of the 4 men. I found myself wincing at her naive responses to the arrival of the men as you could see the horrifying outcome coming a mile away. Whilst harrowing the piece ended on a truly inspirational note as the victim having lived through her ordeal and seen her rapists put in jail contemplates whether she can forgive them as its better to have more friends than enemies in life.

Benedict Cumberbatch as a missionary worker helping a young boy who had been caught stealing (and blamed it on Wayne Rooney!). I’ll happily admit I attended the gala purely to see Cumberbatch (as had a fair percentage of the female audience from the looks of it – he even inspired one odd soul to give a solitary ovation when he walked on) and he was absolutely superb. He has immense stage presence (even clad in green Crocs) and his voice carries to the gods. He gave one of the few real performances of the evening (there was a lot of standing slightly awkwardly with script in hand from some which was entirely understandable given the lack of prep time) veering effortlessly between humour and pathos. His well meaning do gooder (appropriately called Shepherd) bumbles endearingly through misunderstandings with his South African charge (not understanding that the boy’s name is Innocent – and that he’s not protesting his innocence for his recent crimes to him) trying so very very hard to engage with him even though the audience knows from the beginning that he’s fighting a lost cause. As Innocent’s tale of woe unfolds it was heartbreaking to watch Shepherd’s demeanour change from sweet and bumbling to increasingly distressed as he grasps that Innocent couldn’t go to school because his parents couldn’t afford a pen and paper for him. Most affecting moment was Cumberbatch singing a jaunty ditty – a theme tune for a brand of washing powder only to realise seconds later with dawning horror on his face that Innocent is trying to tell him that his mother died because she spent the money which should have been used on her medication on washing powder to keep his father’s shirts clean as if he didn’t have clean shirts he would lose his job. He was visibly tearing up on stage. A real powerhouse performance of a very strong script.

Tom Hiddleston who played Prudence a young girl upset with her mother for her father leaving and excited at the prospect of her birthday orange as oranges taste like joy – only to have a hungry elephant snatch and eat it on her birthday trip to the zoo to her mother’s amusement. Sweet, amusing and heartwarming and played wonderfully by Hiddleston it was a lovely grace note to end what was at times an emotionally devastating evening.

Special mention should also go to the musicians and the wonderful soprano (her name isn’t in the programme) whose haunting melodies set the tone for the evening.

For those who shop on-line a super easy way in the run up to Christmas to help Dramatic Need (that costs nothing) is to set up an account at The Giving Machine and name Dramatic Need as a beneficiary. If you log in to your account and click on the various shops linked they will donate a percentage of your purchases to your chosen charity (Amazon donates 3.75% – hey every bit helps!)

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