Tuesday 24 July sees the launch of Reading Fringe Festival 2018. It’s Reading’s biggest celebration of arts and theatre with over 100 shows of new and alternative comedy, music, theatre and dance. This year also sees a big programme of family-focused events, the centre piece of which is ‘Bicycle Boy’, a bike-powered musical from local theatre company Reading Rep and the writer of sold-out children’s smash hit ‘Alby the Penguin Saves Christmas’.
Ahead of the opening of ‘Bicycle Boy’, on Wednesday 25 July, I spoke to its writer Helen Eastman, about how the children in the audience who really power their musical, making exciting family theatre in a tech-driven age and the thrill of your first free-wheel down a hill.
You’ve worked with Reading Rep before, what’s your background with the company?
My first experience of working with Reading Rep was at Christmas, when I wrote and directed ‘Alby the Penguin Saves Christmas’ – the Reading Rep Christmas show. It was an utterly joyful experience, and incredibly exciting to build a new family audience for Reading Rep.
So can you tell me the story of Bicycle Boy?
Sam, our hero, runs a bicycle workshop that’s been in the family for generations. But now it’s threatened with closure and he’s got to move out. His banker brother turns up to help clear out, and they remember how, when they were little, they pretended to be superheroes, Bicycle Boy and Pedal Power.
Sam really misses his granddad, who founded the shop and taught him everything about bikes. Suddenly he realises granddad left a treasure hunt in the workshop for Sam to find something very special (I can’t tell you what – that’ll spoil the story).
But all the clues seem to need power, and the electricity has already been cut off. Sam needs the audience’s help. We connect some bikes to dynamos, and the dynamos to generators, and all of a sudden we have… pedal power. We need the audience to pedal to power all kinds of discoveries and get us to our final prize.
It’s described as an interactive show, what does that involve?
Well, there’s lots of dialogue with the audience, and opportunities for them to contribute ideas. But most importantly, we need the audience to pedal bikes and generate power.
And does the power really come from the children, or is it smoke and mirrors?
It absolutely genuinely comes from the children. No trickery. And sometimes the audience stop pedalling and everything cuts out. But that’s the joy of live theatre. It has to be absolutely real for the science to make sense to the children. And one of the thrills of live theatre is those unexpected moments.
Why the bicycle? What do you think a bike represents to children now?
Freedom, joy. That thrill of first free-wheeling down a hill. And a way to keep fit. We have a song in the show with a mid-section that is all about the different things cycling means to different people; it can be your relaxation, your adventure, or your commute. But I think the thrill of your first bike, and learning to ride it, is completely timeless.
Is that also a message about alternative energy in there, or is it just a bit of fun?
There’s definitely a message about alternative energy in there. We aren’t suggesting we can bike power the world, but we are inviting the audience to stop and think about just how much energy it takes to power our lives. There’s a joke running through the play about how, even if we had the whole audience cycling, we still couldn’t boil enough water for a cup of tea.
I also think the process of making energy from pedalling a bike can really help children understand what energy actually is, as a concept.
What types of stories do you think most inspire children today? Is it harder to get them interested in the theatre with so many technology options out there?
I think about this a lot as I’m a mum to an 11 year old boy and a 3 year old boy. One of the things I love about this show is that it’s outdoors, and it asks the kids to be active rather than passive. At heart, I think the things that children love about stories – adventure, humour, a dash of jeopardy – are timeless, but the contexts in which we place those stories change.
And I think there’s space in a child’s life to love both theatre and technology – but sometimes we have to drag them away from the technology to remind them how much joy there is in everything else. Computers can become a default way to spend time very easily. But sometimes I need those reminders too – to put my phone away, stop checking my emails, and engage with the world.
It’s a family show, what ages do you think the show will appeal to?
Our target audience is children aged 6-11 and their families. But younger and older siblings are absolutely welcome and we try really hard to help younger siblings get on the bikes, even when their legs aren’t quite long enough. Unaccompanied grown ups are also absolutely welcome, there’s lots in the story that resonates for adults too.
I hear you’ve made the show accessible as well, can you tell me a bit about that?
Absolutely. We’ve been very lucky to get a grant from Without Walls specifically for this. Cycling should be for everyone, but that sometimes means you need different types of bikes. So we now have a hand cycle, which can be ridden by anyone without the use of their legs, and which a wheelchair user can transfer into. We also have a child’s recumbent bike (you sit down to pedal) which is really helpful for children who have issues with core strength or balance.
We took advice from lots of different accessible cycling charities, and we hope we now have a bike for everyone. We have also had a number of our performances signed for deaf audiences (you can find out which performances are signed on our website). I always think signers who can sign a musical are amazing.
And do you cycle? What’s your favourite place to cycle to?
I do, with my kids. But I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to hills. I really like cycling along tow paths and by rivers, you feel close to all the elements. My three year old cycles on his own sometimes, but I secretly love putting him in a front box. I can see him seeing the world – and there’s something really empowering about being able to transport your family.
What else are you looking forward to seeing at Reading Fringe?
Oooh. There’s so much. My kids are really excited about seeing ‘Dan the Hat‘ (again) – his silly stunt show is perfectly pitched and has kids rolling with laughter. I’ve got my eye on ‘Freud the Musical‘, because it seems so unlikely.
Can you sum up ‘Bicycle Boy’ in three words
‘Bike-powered eco-musical’ (I think I cheated there; I’m not sure eco-musical is an official noun).
Bicycle Boy is showing everyday from Wednesday 25 – Sunday 29 July at the Fringe Stage at Station Hill. Tickets are £10/person, £30/family ticket. Buy tickets. Look out for a review of Bicycle Boy after it’s first show.
Hello! I'm Claire, the founding editor of Explore Reading. I'm a Reading native and former digital director of Time Out Shanghai. I founded Explore Reading so no one can say, ‘there’s nothing to do in Reading’, again. When not editing Explore Reading, I'm probably drinking a Manhattan.