[Review:] MAMA G’S STORY TIME ROADSHOW, Wanstead Library, London.
Before starting this review, I should note that there are different versions of this performance available, some for children and some for adults only, and the content constituting each show, I am sure, varies from performance to performance. This review will consider the performance of 12th February at Wanstead Library, intended for very young to young children, and families.
Mama G’s Story Time Roadshow is a delight for both its young and adult audience members with a very wholesome message for our young: be who you want to be and love who you want to love. Delivered from a pantomime dame, this message is all the more direct and poignant, an important philosophy to have the children of today internalise. Mama G’s stories focus on developing disruptive identities, those which stand out from the masses and refusing to follow norms, celebrating a male dinosaur who discovers a love for dressing in women’s clothing, and a horse who yearns to be a unicorn in spite of apparent physical limitations. These characters and their stories serve as intelligent and endearing frameworks for children to explore topics still stigmatised and abnormalised today, and, given that Mama G also sells story-time CDs for children to take home, these philosophies are permitted to extend beyond the stage and become integral features of children’s lives. In fact, several parents/guardians amongst the audience revealed to me that their children were obsessed with Mama G’s stories, that they listen to the CDs on repeat and can recite the stories by heart. In this way, this work is most progressive, positive and encouraging and could serve as a particular, fundamental lifeline for children in need of exposure to the unconventional.
This performance is inextricably confined to a discourse on gender — considering Mama G as a pantomime dame, her cross-dressing T-Rex, her song about the LGBT+ flag, etc. — and so one must consider how this discourse is being utilised by the performance and what the performance achieves and communicates by such utilisation. Mama G presents a very important and positive rhetoric for her young audience, exposing them to LGBT+ themes early in life. If done properly, and, for the most part of this performance, it is, this could be highly encouraging and eye-opening, allowing young children to experience profound and poignant contemporary philosophies wildly unavailable to them in mainstream children’s entertainment.
In Mama G’s stories, both the male T-Rex, Little Roar, and the female horse, Eunice, are courageous in establishing an identity of their own, one which disrupts the norms of the environments they inhabit, causing discomfort in others around them. In negligence of this, the characters continue to be themselves and to dream big. Whilst the story of Little Roar promotes acceptance of transvestism, one could see Eunice’s story, her transitioning from horse to unicorn, as a positive depiction of the transgender experience, using the symbol of the unicorn, common to the LGBT+ community, to facilitate this. Eunice is uncomfortable with her existing identity and wants to be something different and so changes her identity to feel better in her own skin. However, this remains only a reading based on retrospect. This is not explicitly a story of a transgender horse, and I think comparing a real animal with a mythological one is not the best articulation of the struggles of transgender people. So, what is this story about? Indeed, I find the significance of Eunice’s story to be rather vague and feel it encroaches upon a negative territory, that of following, ironically, gender-specific trends in children’s literature.
Whilst Little Roar’s cross-dressing is something that complements his established identity, something that draws out what is inside of him already, so to speak, Eunice’s wanting to be a unicorn is a complete disregard of her existing identity and the assumption of an imaginary one. By using ‘magic’, ‘dreams’ and other suchlike mystical and, above all, immaterial means, Eunice rejects her identity and changes herself completely. This reflects the literary trend of presenting young females as image-obsessed but also one which teaches them to rely on the immaterial, to have little physical interaction with the material world. Whilst Little Roar’s actions alter the world around him, with other characters learning to broaden their horizons and accept him for what he is and with Little Roar going on to be a famous fashion designer, Eunice’s doings remain completely imaginary, with her transformation not only being an impermanent dress-up but also having no effect on neither her future nor her present surroundings [as the discomfort of her friends, though they learn to accept and not question her, still feels resonant]. Reliant on fleeting, impermanent factors, such as eating glitter and sticking a glue stick to her head, Eunice’s ‘elegant’ transformation — an important descriptor — is itself fleeting and impermanent but, more importantly, extreme. Beyond this, these outlandish acts, alongside Mama G’s delivery of them as she exaggerates shock and surprise, encourage the children to laugh at Eunice’s dream, which is the very thing Mama G repetitively warns against. There is a certain uneasiness in her message in this respect. I would urge not necessarily a total reconsideration of Eunice’s story but many modifications within it. We are in need as a society of more stories that present empowered females whose desires and actions have substantial physical effects on the world in which they live and females unconcerned with beauty or image, females I would hope a performance of this nature would depict. [Again, content changes from performance to performance, and so maybe such stories are presented in others; I can only comment upon this performance alone, however].
The character of Mama G is most definitely one of charm and vitality, and performer Robert Pearce’s boundless energy complements this well. Comical movements and witty ad-libs make for a truly engaging performance for both children and adults. In fact, Mama G seemed to have quite the spellbinding effect upon the adults in the same way as upon the children on the day I watched this performance, given their glued eyes and heavy laughter. I would just recommend altering this particular dramatic text to accommodate the children even more, given that these should be the primary audience. Shifting from an overly child-oriented and lullaby-esque Mama G-special rendition of ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Roar’ to stories containing language better suited to seven-year-olds and over, and, finally, to a T-Rex with a so-called “millinery passion”, there is a huge inconsistency in language, material and style, in both the manner in which Mama G addresses her audience and whom Mama G treats her audience to be. Certain features — such as descriptions using registers of language higher than those comprehensible by young children — need to be omitted completely and replaced with child-oriented material. Such language has no place in a performance like this and is a simple business move to attract adults to buy into Mama G’s brand; it is simply unseemly in performance.
I shall now move on to specific storytelling techniques. Instrumental music certainly plays a large part in this performance, used as a backing to both Mama G’s songs and her stories. The usage of this music is slick, seamless and impressive, and it is clear that Pearce is very experienced and organised with his equipment. Volume, however, seems to be an issue at times, having to be in-/decreased at various intervals, taking away from the performativity of certain segments. Another key element is movement and dancing, either through teaching the audience dance moves that they must repeat in song or with Mama G’s own personal dancerly movements and gestures. I would have liked more of these, but, overall, these were sufficient in mesmerising the young audience members and in making the adult audience members laugh. Props are fundamental, from the music equipment to books, to bags, to puppets. All props are used well with the exception of this latter, the puppets. These feature in the story of Eunice but are used without a proper introduction. Mama G is already halfway through the story when the puppets make a bland, abrupt and, above all, unmarked appearance. This is really a great opportunity to add some wonder and magic to the show. Introduce Eunice (the puppet) from the beginning of the story, show her to the children, animate her. She is simply used in a rendition of ‘Old McDonald Had a Farm’ and put straight back to bed, after ‘whispering’ something into Mama G’s ear just that little too late. The magic bag, however, is a simple yet successful trick.
Beyond the music, I would recommend that storytelling techniques be uniquer and more particularised to the performance and that they be used more vigorously, imaginatively, thoughtfully. Whilst I find the alteration of existing nursery rhymes or the use of existing stories by other authors to be a successful and viable way to help children bridge their current understanding of the world together with the world presented by Mama G, that which communicates and celebrates LGBT+ themes, there still lacks a sense of individuality in this performance. It remains difficult for me to grasp Mama G’s character beyond a generic pantomime dame — a self-given title that I find not entirely accurate to describe Mama G’s character type — and a voicer of LGBT+ themes. I would simply like to see more work go into the particularisation of Mama G’s character and her manner of storytelling. There are a lot of elements that could do with further refinement.
This being said, Mama G provides a safe space for a certain expression and experience unavailable so distinctly elsewhere. Energy and momentum are faultless, and storytelling and techniques remain varied and engaging. A most captivating performance for the young.