The Polka Theatre in Wimbledon has joined forces with award-winning playwright Daniel Jamieson and the V&A Museum of Childhood to produce a brand new play, The Box of Photographs. Touching on difficult subjects such as Alzheimer’s and divorce, it puts children’s writing at the heart of the final script, along with an uplifting Ella Fitzgerald sound track…
Words: Madeleine Howell
‘It was Daniel Jamieson’s idea,’ director Sarah Punshon explains. ‘He’s a brilliant playwright.’ She’s not kidding – Jamieson has adapted novels by Charles Dickens and Michael Morpurgo, and also has original plays running this year at the Bristol Old Vic and the Globe. The springboard for this particular project was let loose when Jamieson pitched an initiative to the Polka’s Artistic Director based on some mysterious photographs discovered in storage.
‘Have you heard of Vivian Maier?’ Punshon asks excitedly. ‘She was a nanny from Chicago whose photographs were discovered after she died. They were never published or exhibited in her lifetime.’ Inspired by Maier’s photographs, Jamieson wanted to see what would happen if a group of local children each took a photograph as a stimulus to write a piece of fiction, and if they then plaited them into a grand overarching narrative on the stage.
The project saw an astounding response. A huge number of children sent in 500 short story submissions after their imaginations were sparked by a selection of 1960s photographs provided by the Museum of Childhood. They ‘literally found a set of photographs in a cardboard box labelled miscellaneous, from the archive of a children’s activist called Donne Buck,’ says Punshon, who can hardly wait for the opening night. It’s a simple idea, but the pictures were full of possibilities. ‘The stories are amazing,’ she emphasises. ‘Some of them are quite scary – the kids have vivid imaginations. There’s always someone disappearing underground and going off to some magical place.
‘The final play we’ve created is sort of a collage held together by Chelsea, the protagonist, a girl who has moved away from her friends and discovers a box of photographs under the bed in her new flat. Discovering stories helps her to settle into a new place and become braver.’ From St Anselm’s in Tooting Bec to Eaton House in Wandsworth, it’s a collaborative feat of storytelling from South West London’s talented kids. ‘There was a brilliant story sent in from one of the Wimbledon schools and the central character had so much personality that we had to base Chelsea on her.’
What are the difficulties of directing a script for a young audience? ‘You do have to think about how long an eight-year-old will be willing to sit still,’ Punshon admits. ‘Children are the harshest critics, and if they’re not enjoying it, they’re going to say so. But there’s something special about a younger audience that’s really engaged.
‘There’s quite a grown up element to the show. It deals with Alzheimer’s very lightly. It is an upsetting topic though, and it’s a really big deal to explore how memories are formed, what it’s like to get older, and how a relationship between a kid and an older person might develop and change in that situation.’ The play also touches on divorce, which at least some members of the audience are likely to have experienced themselves.
‘Chelsea is in an unfamiliar place and is going through a period of change in her life,’ Punshon reveals. ‘Her parents have split up, which is something lots of children have to deal with. I went though it. I remember how scary it was, and it was hugely comforting for me to read books, see plays and know people going through the same thing.’
Punshon is keen on the idea of children using writing to express themselves. ‘From writing fiction, you can learn a massive amount. You can explore a different kind of world, picture alternative paths, and take risks in an imaginative way.’ The play ultimately has a positive message: Ella Fitzgerald provides uplifting period music for a truly immersive experience, while the idea of how much London has changed also shines through.
There’s sure to be plenty of surprises along the way, Punshon assures us. ‘The way the show has been made is so unusual, and hopefully the kids who have been involved will get a lot out of it. They’ll witness how a playwright can transform stories into a script, and then see it transformed yet again from the page to the stage.’ Time to book tickets for the family, dig out that old box of Polaroids from the attic and get ready to let your imaginations run wild.
The Box of Photographs; 22 April-15 May; 020 8545 828; polkatheatre.com