A group of excited children are hunting for giant jigsaw pieces, dancing and talking to puppets. The youngsters are in a world created by Bootworks Theatre Company in which they’re helping one little boy Frank, who has lost his mum.

This is the world of The Many Doors of Frank Feelbad, a touring show created for four to seven-year-olds which promises to be lots of fun for children and adults – but with a serious message underneath.

Because what do we mean when we say Frank has ‘lost’ his mum?

The show, which was created three years ago after extensive work with psychologists and hospice staff, is actually about the topic of death and dying and uses Frank’s story to encourage parents to talk to their children about these issues.

Bootworks co-artistic director James Baker explains: “The show follows a character called Frank who has lost his mother. He doesn’t know what has happened to her and, being an inquisitive kind of guy, he sets about trying to find where she is. He doesn’t get any answers from his dad so he goes to a place called the Lose-O-Porium, which is where all the lost things are kept but mum can’t be found there either so he goes on a journey to look for her.

“On the way he meets lots of different characters who talk about the things they’ve lost in their lives as well and each character takes Frank through a different stage of that learning journey.

“It’s a really fun show – despite the theme of it. It’s all about getting kids to talk about, and think about, what it’s like to lose things and equip them with some tools for when that might happen to them.”

James argues that many children’s shows feature characters who die or are killed and children accept those events happening but where The Many Doors of Frank Feelbad differs is that it then encourages families to discuss those events.

“If you think about so many of the stories, cartoons and films that children love, many of them feature death in some way,” he says. “Think of the Lion King where his dad dies or The Snowman where the Snowman melts. These are all popular cultural references. We don’t think of them as being stories about dying yet dying is an important part of the story.

“I think it’s such a shame that we think death is something we should keep from children. It’s something that as a culture we don’t address enough with children – or adults for that matter.

“We seem to struggle with the idea that children can cope with things which, we think, are beyond the realms of things they should be able to cope with. My argument has always been that children are very intelligent and if we try and keep anything from them we do them a disservice.”

James and his team believe theatre is an ideal vehicle to open the door on these discussions.

“Children are very aware that bad things happen in the world and we feel that as a theatre company we should address the whole palate of human emotion – not just try and maintain a pretence that everything is always great,” he says. “I don’t think that sets children up for the reality of the world.

“Exploring these themes means that when things do happen in their lives like the death of a parent or a grandparent then they are familiar with reference points and perhaps parents have already had a conversation with them about death so it’s not such a jarring experience for them.”

Families will have the chance to experience The Many Doors of Frank Feelbad when the production comes to Birmingham next month. Performed at the Children’s Library at the Library of Birmingham on Saturday May 12, there are performances at 12.30-1.30pm and 3-4pm.

The show forms part of a two-week festival, A Matter of Life and Death, which features theatre, arts and crafts, discussions, dining and film to encourage people of all ages to discuss issues around end of life. Created by the community collective BrumYODO, the festival take place across Birmingham between May 10-26 and is supported by Arts Council England and sponsored by Silks solicitors and international professional advisors STEP.

Festival programme manager Antonia Beck saw Frank Feelbad at the Life, Death (and the Rest) Festival in Bristol earlier this year and knew straight away it was the ideal production for A Matter of Life and Death.

“Frank Feelbad is a wonderful show for children and adults!” she says. “It's funny, charming and presents the sensitive subject matter of death and bereavement in a very supportive and perceptive way. 

“Bootworks Theatre Company have created a great experience for all ages and, once you step inside the 'Lose-O-Porium', you are completely engaged in wanting to help Frank in the search for his mum. This is a much-needed piece of theatre with a very profound message about having open and honest conversations with children about death.

“Death comes to us all at some time and the more prepared we are to discuss it with children and young people, the more they can understand when they do experience the death of someone they love.”

James says A Matter of Life and Death is the ideal place for Bootworks to bring Frank’s journey.

“These kind of festivals are really important,” he says. “They are the places where our show can have significant impact on the people who experience it because beyond the show the festival has a whole cultural shift around the subject of dying. The fact that someone will go to one event and then take their children to another event is a real cross-pollination across the generations. It becomes a whole family experience.”

The Many Doors of Frank Feelbad encourages those families not just to discuss the themes after watching the production – but also to be part of the story.

“The children are recruited to help Frank locate places and things throughout the show,” James says. “The first thing they do is go on a scavenger hunt to find puzzle pieces and when they put them together they discover a map of the town.

“They have a role and with every character they meet there is some interaction between the kids and the character – that may be shouting out answers or doing a dance to unlock the next level or listening to their parent’s heartbeat. The audience helps us along the way.”

And they also talk to each other.

“It’s a family show and there are things written into it which encourage the carer and child to sit together and share experiences. It’s very participatory. Families love the show and the responses have been really positive. Children are totally wrapped up in the story and what happens to Frank and his experiences along the way and it does tend to act as a catalyst for conversation.

“We’ve kept the audience pretty small in terms of audience numbers, it’s a show for 30 or so at a time because in that smaller context we can talk to people about something which is a bit taboo. A small space like that is more nurturing and safe than a larger theatre space.

And the youngsters are invited to respond to the story and the characters throughout.

“It’s not just the performer talking so if the child wants to ask a question at any point the show is flexible enough that we can have a little chat about something at any moment without it being an interruption – in fact we really encourage that kind of involvement from audience members.

“What we are trying to do is encourage dialogue between families about death – so we want to encourage them to be talking.”

James says that while Frank Feelbad does have an important message, it’s also a fun show which will draw children into the world of theatre.

“Our show does break from the norms of children’s theatre but we do so in a responsible way and in a celebratory way. And in a way that’s fun – this isn’t a ‘dirgey’ show in any way – it just so happens that death is something which happens in the piece of work.

“This show was always designed for everyone. It’s just a show, it’s not necessarily a show just about dying. But we worked with our local hospice in Chichester and psychologists at Chichester University, where we are based, to make sure that it was right for families who had experienced recent bereavement. We felt that if it worked for them then we felt on safe terms that it would work for everyone.

“Bereavement is something that affects us all so profoundly and it’s one of the only inevitable things in life. The more we can be open and honest with our children about it and introduce ways that they can cope with it, the better equipped they will be as they come up close to it.”

Tickets for the show are £5 for children, £7 for adults or a family ticket for four costs £20. 

The Many Doors of Frank Feelbad shows at Saturday 12 May at Library Of Birmingham - 12:30pm – 1:30pm & 3:00pm – 4:00pm.

For more on The Many Doors of Frank Feelbad and to book tickets see brumyodo.org.uk

By Diane Parkes