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Having worked for many years straddling the two worlds of Theatre and Education (which can indeed be a painful position to be in at times!), I was interested in attending Erth’s Dinosaur Zoo at the Grand Theatre at the weekend to find out how they might successfully engage young audiences in the topic of palaeontology.

Youngsters from toddlers to teens entered the auditorium excitedly – most clutching some favourite or newly-bought dino doll – and as the show started there was a swell of excitement. An extremely affable Australian chap entered the stage and set up the tone for the event – pitching at both children and parents alike.  He had a light-hearted approach to the subject matter and a thrilling engagement with some of the inhabitants of the earth of 65 million years ago followed.

Audience participation was obligatory, onstage opportunities came thick and fast and the prehistoric puppets that occupied both stage and auditorium were excellently created and expertly operated.

The dinosaur information delivered by the host was usually accompanied by a physical representation onstage and thus led to quips from the host such as, “I do actually realise that nobody is listening to a word I say but this is my job so I’m going to push on through with it.” The atmosphere was great and it enabled those that were actually interested in the factual side of things to engage whilst also enabling the whole theatre to be entertained.

The majority of the audience was around the age of five and so I was worried that the nearly-ten-year-old who accompanied me would find the piece pitched a little beneath him. However, in our post-show analysis, I was relieved that he thought there was in fact something for all ages – I was inclined to agree. The outcome of this very young audience was that there were occasional screams of terror and unwillingness to participate in the feeding activities, although this was all to the glee of the older, more seasoned audience members.

My only disappointment was that none of the dinosaurs featured were ones I’d actually heard of! The focus being solely on the creatures that inhabited Australia. Whilst being key to securing international touring funding from their country of origin, I’m sure, it didn’t make for the most crowd-pleasing educational entertainment in Blackpool, UK. I don’t purport to be any kind of expert in this field but in spite of the bigging-up of the longer-armed, faster, more furious, unpronounceable, Antipodean relative and some good managing of expectations by the host – had the T-Rex featured, it may have just secured a tad more engagement in the final 15 minutes of the 55 minute-long show.

Although online it says for ages 3 and above, I would suggest that this piece of remarkably well-made and slickly executed educational theatre is perfectly pitched at the 7 to11 age group and although it was only in town for a few shows at the weekend, it is touring so if you have the chance to catch it elsewhere and have a small person in that age group, it’s an hour very well spent.

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    Melanie Whitehead is the Creative Director of The Old Electric, Blackpool's newest theatre. She previously worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre.

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