Young Herbert is a little horror. Living on a boat should be the ideal life for a wannabe pirate, but the boat’s grounded until Herbert can learn to tidy his cabin, eat his greens and be more polite. A big storm brews up when Herbert is sent home from school and Mum calls on Great Uncle Albatross – navy captain and scourge of all pirates – to warn him of the dangers of rebellion.
But who is Great Uncle Albatross and do his cautionary tales really have the power to make Young Herbert behave? Or will they just give Young Herbert the horrors?
Featuring swashbuckling verse, jaunty music, gallows humour and the obligatory parrot, Young Herbert’s Horrors is Justin Coe’s brand new spoken word show for children, following the highly popular Big Wow, Small Wonder.
A Justin Coe production that toured nationally as part of Half Moon Presents.
Tell us a little about Young Herbert’s Horrors. What’s the show about?
Well, Young Herbert lives on a boat with his Mum and likes to think he’s a swashbuckling pirate. He’s a bit of a horror, always leaving his cabin untidy, never eating his greens, and being rather rude to his Mum. Mum doesn’t know what to do to help him be good, so she threatens him with his Great Uncle Albatross, a naval commander and the scourge of all rebels. Herbert thinks Albatross is just one of Mum’s made-up stories, but one day he turns up for real and takes charge of the boat. Albatross attempts to scare Herbert into being good by telling him three nautical cautionary tales, but it’s hard to make the boy change because Herbert just loves “being a naughty, naughty pirate!”
Deep down, the show is really about the relationship between Herbert and his Mum, and the relationship between all children and their parents, about the conflict and the love between us.
What was the inspiration for the story?
My children! Although the story is told predominately from a child’s point of view, the idea came out of my attempts to parent my three young kids.
Sometimes in my desperation to get my children to bed, I’d pretend to ring Inspector Laws and report their naughty behaviour. Then one day my youngest said, “If you don’t stop telling us to get to bed I’m going to report you to Inspector Laws”. That annoyed me! But it also made me laugh and I thought it would be fun to write a story where the children get to take charge of the bogie monsters that the adults have threatened them with. That conversation was the inspiration for me writing the show.
Are you a wannabe pirate in real life?
It’s a poet’s life for me! Though I’ve spent most of my life living by the sea, I’m much happier looking out at it than being on it. But I have a lot of fun on stage playing at being a pirate and the young audiences have a lot of fun with that too, I think.
Why do the issues covered in Young Herbert’s Horrors particularly resonate with you?
Just because there is an ocean of love between parents and their children, doesn’t always make for plain sailing. Some sort of conflict between children and adults is inevitable. So, yes, though in real life I’m neither Herbert the Horror or Herbert’s Mother, I can relate to both. In some ways, this is really a love letter to my children and to my parents.
What are the pleasures and challenges of working on a show like Young Herbert’s Horrors?
The biggest pleasure is seeing the initial ideas realised into poems and characters and all of it coming to life in front of a live audience. But it took me a lot of time to get the script right, because although you can have a lot of fun with language in a spoken word show, the story must be told very clearly for young audiences to follow. I did about seven drafts of the script, the last three drafts were about cutting and editing because there were too many ideas in the end and while, still appealing to parents and older children, we wanted the youngest children to be able to enjoy it as well.
Does the touring element of the show present any particular challenges? What do you have to consider when bringing the show to different venues?
I don’t drive and travel to all my performances by public transport. This presented Designer Adam Nee and Half Moon’s Production and Technical Manager Phil Clark with the biggest challenge of all. How could they fit all the costume, the set and the props in one suit-case? When you come to see the show and see what comes out of that case – a six foot high boat, a treasure chest and everything inside it – you won’t believe how well they’ve done. Nevertheless the suitcase is still pretty large so it’s going to be an adventure everywhere I travel!
What can audiences look forward to?
I hope that they enjoy a funny and moving story, well told. As well as the great costume and set, we also have some brilliant original music from Greg and Vlad from Greg Hall Music. And there’s plenty of lively language, a chance to “arrgh” like a pirate and some rude humour involving a pair of knickers.
Describe Young Herbert’s Horrors in three words.
Pirates! Parents! Poetry!
Horror, Humour, Heart.
You are a spoken word performer. What is it about spoken word you like so much?
As a child I always enjoyed playing with words and making up rhymes. In my teenage years, I also found writing poems to be a way of mastering what I wanted to say, when I was unable to say those things eloquently enough in everyday life. Now as an adult, I suppose I do both. Being a poet gives me the chance to play and to say what I think and feel…and also to tell imaginative stories.
Your book, Dictionary of Dads, was published in 2017. What has the reaction been like?
It was my first solo book and the critical response has been very positive. I’m very pleased with what my publisher Otter-Barry did with it, and especially with Steve Well’s witty illustrations. It feels great to have something in print, but ultimately I’m a performance poet and I love taking the book out to audiences and entertaining them with the more interactive and funny verses.
Are you working on anything else at the moment?
My publishers have asked me to write a book about Mums so I am working on those poems at the moment. I’m also touring with another show, produced by Half Moon Presents, Boy’s Don’t. I’ve got an idea for a novel and another poetry show – but also three children and not enough time!
What inspired your career? What advice would you give to young people hoping to follow in your footsteps?
Stop following me! Seriously, everyone has to find their own path and there’s probably a shorter route that will get you there quicker.
I think you just have to love poetry (or writing or theatre) to want to do it as a job. Once you set out you just have to keep on going. I’ve had to do many other different jobs from time to time but I’ve never lost the belief that at heart, I am a poet and performer.
But anyone can write and perform if they want to; you just need a pen and a notebook or a computer for writing and an audience to perform to. It can be your parents, your friends, even your dog, to start with.
Finally, what would you like audiences to take with them after seeing the show?
Ideally a love of poetry, theatre and humanity – plus a copy of my book!