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Special Ed: Healthy Body, Happy Me
Etcetera Theatre
12th August 2013

★★★☆☆

Ed with Callum Stewart

Photography provided by The Grinning Idiots

A children's theatre show, using puppets, that gets a bit dark you say? Isn't that the cult TV show Wonder Showzen? Well, not really. It's not a puppet saying rude words for no reason - in fact the titular puppet barely swears at all. Instead, this is a dark peering into the psyche of an unhinged man that may just be something supernatural, but let's not spoil things, eh?

Callum Stewart and Diana Winter are trying, really trying to put on that cliched Mr Tumble-style kids' show about the benefits of healthy living. And, as a bonus for the audience, it's also Callum's birthday. Much cake, cards and merriment ensues, aided by Joe Rynhart, the technician that seems incredibly eager - that is until Callum and his puppet pal Ed are left alone. And from there, things start to go downhill fast.

Grinning Idiots Theatre, a bunch of recent graduates have definitely used their university career to the best possible effect for this show, presumably born from a hazy, hungover morning watching CBeebies. Their attention to detail in the setup is impeccable, their audience interaction with us, the boys and girls, perfectly vapid and redundant. Props for the props also, as the naive fruit machine (surely irresponsible?), and even the design of Ed himself are spot on, the latter with a large nod to Henson. The songs, especially a woeful and badly constructed (for all the right reasons) emergency services song to the tune of Music Man are tight, accurate and a poor indictment of the tripe we're feeding our youth.

But after the jolly opening, we see a man in crisis. Callum - who I feel sorry for as he will undoubtedly end up billed as a funnier James Corden - snaps. His life hasn't been what he wished and the darkness sets in. With the aid of his literal right-hand-man, Ed, given life with a vaguely Rik Mayall voice, he cuts a swathe through the cast and intentionally or not brings the show to its knees. Now the disillusioned children's presenter is nothing new (Death to Smoochy, Psychoville's Mr Jelly) but the Grinning Idiots give it the shot in the arm it needs. It's not perfect, but it's bloomin' enjoyable.

Laughs come from the sheer idiocy of it all, this well-meaning but fraying bumbler his own worst enemy. In what could have been an excuse for a silly, cutesy thing to do foul-mouthed tirades is actually subtler than that, jokes aligning for a reason and with more than a hint of desperation. Callum played a frantic and disturbed blinder, Diana the drama queen well, bubbling under the surface, Joe the show must go on fella, and each gave a good portion of laughs. Although, despite the intelligence behind the endeavour I will question - after the Ricky Gervais Mong-gate incident - is there any need to use "retard" as an insult as the cast does twice, especially with no payoff? Is it meant to highlight that these people are no better than the children they're entertaining? Because it doesn't scan like that.

As the layers and pleasantries fall away, we move into more sinister territory with all of the once innocent players revealing themselves all to be spiteful and vaguely desperate, with a potential Twilight Zone twist. If you want to take it at face value, that is. More perhaps could be made of the maligned tech guy and his overt ambition to be part of the proceedings, and a more severe contrast between the light and the dark, but these are just fancies.

But on the whole, don't let the childlike flyers put you off from what is a sharp and well-pointed arrow to the heart of kids' theatre. Just don't bring your kids, eh, unless you want them to learn some colourful new words.

Special Ed opened on 12th August and runs until 16th August 2013, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Camden Town (Northern)



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