There was a time when anyone seeking live entertainment for children could look forward to the Christmas panto and little else.
Happily, the rather alarming world of dames, dancers and singalong songs is no longer the only entree into theatre for little people.
In recent times, Paul McEneaney’s Cahoots NI has been providing breath-taking productions for junior audiences, as full of magic and wonder as a child’s imagination demands.
The company’s next show is a revival of McEneneany’s adaptation of children’s classic The Snail and The Whale — the story of how a curious little snail hitched a ride on a whale’s tail and set off to see the world.
Paul who is an illusionist, weaves his magic through the story, which is performed with music and songs from harpist Ursula Burns.
“It’s so motivating working with Ursula,” he said. “I originally decided to adapt the story for stage because my son loved it, and I’d been reading it to him every night for about a year.
“Ursula’s son is about the same age, so we had this joint enthusiasm for the story, along with a responsibility to stay true to our kids’ vision of the story — children have their own pictures inside their heads, and it can be difficult to bring them to life. But I think we’ve managed.”
Now the show is ready to entertain children aged four to eight, with its live music, magic and illusion.
Cahoots performed the show in small venues last year, but after a hugely successful tour, which culminated in a performance in front of two and a half thousand people in Leicester, Paul realized that the production could be scaled up for bigger theatres.
And so, when the Grand Opera House in Belfast suggested Cahoots might like to bring the show there, the company gulped, swallowed hard, and said yes.
“We’ve carried out several rewrites, and designed a much bigger set for this run. It’s a far cry from our last show, which we performed in a tent in the grounds of Clifton House,” said Paul. “But we’re up for it. This time round, children will really get to see the snail on the whale’s back. No ambiguity!”
Cahoots has earned a reputation for its magical shows — and not just here in Northern Ireland.
“We’ve been performing in Washington, South Korea, Japan — and I think all our work is paying off. It used to be that children were considered the audience of the future. We’ve shown that they are also the audience of today, and deserve good, imaginative shows like anyone else.”
Paul is a great believer in using his imagination. He and fellow founder member Zoe Seaton, both retain a sense of wonder and magic that makes them work so well with children.
“Shakespeare also realized the power of magic,” said Paul. “Zoe and I staged an outdoor production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in England — Shakespeare describes how Titania floats up through the trees. We were able to show that. It’s all about making magic.”
Next off, Paul is planning an adaptation of two children’s books about the circus — so there’ll be plenty of magic there, too.
In the meantime, The Snail and The Whale are probably heading up Belfast Lough as you read this, preparing for their stop-off at the Opera House from September 17-19. It’s a big whale, so there’s probably room for you and a couple of little ones to hitch a ride...