“Imagine good things so the bad things don’t win” at Northern Stage

Review of ‘Free School Meals’ at Northern Stage

Newcastle-based ‘Unfolding Theatre’ is one of the region’s most precious cultural assets, making eclectic big-hearted performance work rooted in community participation and co-production. Their latest offering ‘Free School Meals’ is set in a restaurant called ‘The Future’ where children are in charge and grown-ups are the apprentices.

This brave and unashamedly political show inspired by Marcus Rashford’s campaign to end child food poverty, opened a post-lockdown season of work at Northern Stage programmed by the newly appointed Artistic Director, Natalie Ibu. It had been more than 18 months since I had enjoyed a live theatre performance and I was excited to be back in the auditorium in one of my favourite theatres.

Café-style setting at Northern Stage

We were shown to our tables in a cafe-style setting with a large working kitchen and mini cabaret stage for in-dining entertainment. The musician and performance poet Kay Greyson was on the bill for what turned out to be an eventful opening night for the new eatery.

The cast of aspiring cooks was made up of a diverse group of children drawn from schools in Byker and Walker, plus veteran North East performer Alex Elliott as the keen apprentice. The children were full of hope, enthusiasm and ideas. They want a better world and they want to share it with us, the adults who let them down.

We were given a Menu Order Card which included the restaurant ‘Rules’. I remember being a mother of two small children in insecure work so I was particularly taken with the no waste policy:

“Feel free to eat anything.

But if you order it, eat everything.

If you can’t finish it, just take it home.”

No place for bullying, racism or hating

In my advocacy work with children all around the world I have always found our youngest citizens to be open and inclusive with an antipathy towards anything that smacks of injustice. The enterprise known as ‘The Future’ was no exception with the management stating,

 “The future’s no place for bullying,

Racism or hating.”

I ordered my favourite childhood food, fish pie, and waited. We were all hungry with anticipation, but a drama was developing in the kitchen as the supply of ‘super fresh ingredients’ that we had been promised appeared to have dried up.

Another supplier was found but when the boxes were delivered they contained paltry government rations – cheese slices wrapped in plastic, a few old carrots and plastic sachets of sugary ‘Frubes’. For those with short memories these items were the pathetic contents of food parcels that the government begrudgingly paid for after Marcus Rashford’s campaign exposed the scandal of child hunger and the risk for home-schooled children in struggling families.

The young proprietors of ‘The Future’ were angry, upset, mortified. It was the same old story – the grown up world failing miserably to deliver on promises. What would the child protagonists do now? Some wanted to give up and shut up shop. Others continued to hope and imagine a better future.

Hope won the day

Luckily hope won the day and we were given a cup of tea and a pot of wax crayons so we could colour in some images of ‘The Future’ whilst the children used their initiative to cook up some healthy snacks. Boxes of micro-greens arrived on our tables along with savoury and sweet freshly-cooked pancakes.

Using children as actors is a risky business which can result in accusations of exploitation. At the very least it is hard to avoid being patronising but writer Luca Rutherford and director Annie Rigby manage to avoid the pitfalls largely by allowing the children to be themselves, inhabiting the space with their sense of purpose and owning the material.

My biggest take-away is the importance to keep hope alive and the creative power of human beings to envision a better future. As one of the youthful restaurateurs said:

“You have to imagine good things so the bad things don’t win.”

Read more by Julie Ward

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