Preview: Happily Ever After

A children’s book about two princes who fall in love has been adapted for stage in a bid to tackle homophobic bullying in schools, writes Kevin Bourke

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Earlier this summer, North Carolina teacher Omar Currie was forced to resign after reading the popular Dutch children’s book King and King, which tells the story of two princes who fall in love and live happily ever after, to his elementary school class.

And it’s not just in the US that homophobia still permeates educational establishments. In a 2014 study by UK charity Stonewall, 86 per cent of secondary and 45 per cent of primary teachers said that pupils in their schools had experienced homophobic bullying, with the word ‘gay’ often used as an insult.

Now, Ellesmere Port-based Action Transport Theatre is touring a play based on King and King. Devised in association with LGBT Youth North West, it’s called Happily Ever After and is aimed at children aged five and over. The play offers a new twist on the traditional fairy tale, as well as tackling the issue of homophobic bullying by spreading a positive message about diversity and acceptance.

“More and more families now include same sex adult parents or carers, or have other
family members who are gay, yet there is an absence of gay identities in theatre and wider culture for young children at primary school age,” says Nina Hajiyianni, artistic director of Action Transport Theatre. “Where are those children’s lives validated or represented in art, not to mention younger children who identify as gay themselves?”

Hajiyianni is speaking to Big Issue North on the same day the Children’s Society has released its annual Good Childhood Report. In this international study of children’s happiness, England was ranked bottom out of 15 countries for emotional bullying – below Ethiopia, Algeria and South Korea.

“We sometimes don’t seem to appreciate that we need to create spaces for children to be free to learn and experience the world on their own terms, without all this pressure and testing based on very narrow ideas of what children should be learning,” Hajiyianni says.

“The play addresses the subject of same sex marriage – not in a heavy-handed, preachy way, but simply by having fun with the conventions and symbols associated with the fairytale. I think the piece is really age appropriate. It’s just a joyous and life-affirming story of friendship, almost like a dance, where people – not just the prince and prince – come together.

“We hope it will introduce children to the concept of diversity at a young age and also
help to reduce the negative experience of ‘coming out’ that most lesbian, gay, bisexual
and trans young people experience during school years.”

The production, which toured in a pilot version to eight Cheshire schools last year
and which Hajiyianni hopes will eventually also tour more conventional venues, is entirely wordless and uses clowning, physical theatre and dance to tell the story.

This approach, Hajiyianni explains, is especially appropriate because the words we use to describe gay relationships often have certain connotations. “Where there is no language and the story is being told visually, the audience don’t fall into any of those associations. We’re free to witness this love story and make up our own minds about what’s happening.”

Happily Ever After is at Z-Arts, Manchester, 25-26 Sept and Whitby Hall Studio Theatre, Ellesmere Port, 2-3 Oct. It tours nationally next year

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