A clear midwinter’s evening, a church hall somewhere in the suburbs. Forty or fifty 7 to 14-year-olds sit in a circle on the floor. A piece of masking tape on the wooden floor marks the start of the audience, a conglomerate of parents and grandparents and brothers and sisters crowded in on the church chairs. The dads at the back stand on the chairs so they can see. A sparkling if high-pitched drama teacher, in leggings and a T-shirt emblazoned with the name of the drama school; she didn’t look much older than the kids. I guess I was one of the few audience members who wasn’t a blood relation of one of the young performers.
The church hall brought back memories of drama eistedfodds and concerts, of practising memorised bits of prose and poetry that have somehow never stuck with me, despite the hours of repetition. Of getting changed into leotards and tights “backstage” in rooms devoid of any theatricality. There was always a wooden table and a tea urn somewhere, and nothing on any wall. The place always felt like waiting. Waiting for the audience to arrive, waiting for your turn, waiting for applause, waiting for adjudication, waiting for the reports and prizes to be handed out… and then waiting for it to feel like anything had really happened.
Tonight had more of a sense of excitement about it; the kids were there to perform what they’d played and enjoyed during the week. There were no prizes or grades; the grey-bunned adjudicators of my childhood years would have stormed out at the lack of polish. No mums had been buttonholed into staying up late at night to sew arrays of co-ordinated and sequinned costumes; no teams of theatre-shy arty kids had been pulled in to paint sets. What there was to be enjoyed were the intermittent flashes of delight where someone just hurled themselves into their song or dance or dramatic little scene. Those moments, like little jewels, sparkle all the more for being borne aloft on the burgeoning tide of self-awareness that seems to grip kids fast approaching adolescence.
I was dumbstruck, though, by the sheer gorgeousness of kids. Even the plain ones, with mouths full of orthodontics; the oversized ones shyly spilling out of their jeans; the reed-thin ones hunching to protect their fast-changing bodies and their shy hopes of understanding themselves. Some of them looked like their 24-year-old selves. Some of them still looked 3. They were marvelous and terrifying to see, on the brink of so many changes. They are beautiful, phenomenally beautiful, obliviously beautiful. And yet. There is nothing you could offer me to return to that heartachingly terrible age.