It's a Mann's world: A crying shame

Olly Mann

This month, Olly Mann reveals how a performance of Teletubbies Live unexpectedly moved him to tears

When was the last time you cried? You may be able to answer that very specifically, if your tears were triggered by a traumatic event. Euthanising a beloved pet, for instance. Or you may be the kind of person who cries all the time: at romcoms, at weddings, at Christmas carols; each and every time the plane lands, or the kids get a new sports kit. In that case, you probably won’t even remember when you last cried, because it’s such a routine occurrence.

I fit into neither of these categories. I’m somewhere in the middle. I cry when something truly awful happens, of course. I shed a few tears the day my father died, and (such are the eccentricities of grief) wept more heartily on perhaps half-a-dozen subsequent occasions, initiated by sudden, small sadnesses, such as wanting to call him for a chat, or seeing how much his grandson admired his vintage car.

I’m not a serial blubberer, though. I’ve never been moved to tears during the final reel of a movie, or a stirring verse of poetry. But there is something that gets my waterworks running, and it’s a little embarrassing. Without fail, the one thing that always increases the flow of oxygen through my body, and provokes an instant moistening of my eyes, is… children’s theatre.

"In children's theatre it's not just the actors who act; it's the entire audience who make-believe"

I know, it’s weird. I’m not even referring to emotional historical dramas, like Goodnight Mister Tom or The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Rather, I start to cry when I see anything—seriously, anything—with my three year-old son, Harvey. A pantomime. A dolphin show. A busker making balloon animals. It’s weird.

The first time it happened, I was caught unawares: Teletubbies Live, at the Alban Arena. The show was sold out, and it was bedlam. Just navigating through the buggies in the foyer took iron will. As we took our seats, and a toddler behind me kicked me repeatedly in the neck, I felt no emotion at all, apart from relief that I’d found something that would keep Harvey quiet for an hour, and incredulity at the steep price of the merchandise.

I don’t know if you’ve ever attended Teletubbies Live, but it’s a bit like a Lady Gaga gig, with the lights left on. There are glow sticks (albeit in the shape of Tinky-Winky). The audience are screaming—some in sheer excitement, some just because, well, babies scream. Most of the crowd have ingested mood-altering substances (Haribo, Buttons, Fruit Shoot). My point is, there is EXCITEMENT in the air. The Teletubbies don’t just step on to the stage—there is build-up. The theme tune plays. A bubbly young lady gets the spectators even more psyched—Dipsy is in the building! Some of the crowd literally soil themselves in anticipation.

So, when the freaky foursome finally take centre-stage to begin their nonsensical narrative, it’s intense. A coup de théâtre. La-La is real! The TV programme you’ve watched all your little life is unfolding—right in front of your eyes! As far as the kids are concerned, these are not suited-up stage school graduates with student loans to pay, but actual, living, breathing bloody Teletubbies. And this made me cry.

Initially, I was dumfounded by my own reaction. After all, Harvey himself wasn’t obviously hysterical; simply smiling and nodding along with the familiar songs and plots. And I’d observed him doing far more significant things in the past—first walk, first words, first unaccompanied wee—without so much as a lump in my throat. On reflection, I realised that it wasn’t the children that were triggering my emotions, it was the adults: the actors, the theatre-makers, and the parents and grandparents in the audience. We were all conspiring to make something magical happen for the children. In children’s theatre, it is not just the actors who act; it’s the entire audience, who make-believe, for the sake of their little ‘uns, that the fantastic stories unfolding on stage are true. This moves me.

It accounts for why I remain resolutely stoney-faced through grown-up theatrical tear-jerkers—The Elephant Man, Les Miserables, Shadowlands—and yet my tears start flowing the moment someone off CBeebies steps on stage.

Harvey and I have since seen Zog, Stick Man, The Green Ship and The Very Hungry Caterpillar: I cried at them all. Even the Pirates Cove Ski Adventure stunt show at Legoland set me off. Fellow members of the audience may have presumed I’d once been captured by pirates, and was suffering some sort of PTSD. Recently, I burst into tears during the showstopper of "Aliens Love Underpants"—a song about Y-fronts. But the sense of wonder in the children around me, and the complicity of their accompanying adults, is infectious.

It's very much in the modern mode for a man such as I to declare his vulnerabilities, and feel no shame about crying in public. But when the cause is Gangsta Granny? I suspect it’s best to wail silently to myself. Thankfully, shows for pre-schoolers are always over in 60 tight minutes. I’m not sure my heart could take much more. 


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