When was the last time you saw a kids’ show based on a Kafka story? Never, right? Well here’s your chance! The Trial of Josie K is a surreal but comic production for ages 9-13, and it’s a bold, impressive programming choice.
Anything based on Kafka’s The Trial risks being a bit dark: he isn’t known for his cheery disposition. However, writer Katie Hims not only manages to avoid this, but creates an original script with great fun, warm humour and compassion. It cleverly articulates difficult issues faced by young people, including grief, unrecognised guilt and anxiety, giving them visibility and space, and fuelling post-show conversation. But it also provides an upbeat and entertaining balance.
Josie K likes a dance, hanging with her mate Becca (Jadie Rose Hobson) and cake. Especially cake. And she carries a small plastic dinosaur with her everywhere. One day she is informed that she is on trial and must attend multiple interviews with an unnamed bureaucrat. She never learns what she is accused of, or what the result might be if she’s found guilty. It’s a completely absurd, relentlessly worrying situation.
Nkhanise Phiri is vibrantly charismatic as Josie K, totally nailing the spirit of a twelve year-old. Her flawless performance is fun, intelligent and determined, and she deftly manages a decline into deep distress and out again. Her dynamic energy drives the storyline, forging a path through the weird, elusive environment of Josie’s dilemma.
Tom Moores is splendidly cast as the humourless Bureaucrat who makes Josie jump through pointless hoops. It’s a difficult ask to turn this character into someone with compassion come the end, but he pulls it off convincingly. Equally talented is Hobson as Becca, who anchors the wild nonsense to reality with her genial, down-to-earth approach.
The script is well-written and funny, drawing on Kafka’s distinctive style to evoke a sense of bewilderment and confusion. It explores and identifies the often unseen stresses on children, immersing the audience in an environment that enacts them so they share a space with Josie K and feel her anxiety. But it then provides humour, custard pies and scones to diffuse and reframe them. Josie K’s life pressures impact her mental health, but importantly she finds support through friendship. Ultimately there is positive uplift at the end of the play and an empowering message of possibility.
Rose Revitt’s muted pastel set initially seems simple, but proves to be complex and interesting. Doors and flaps pop open unexpectedly, and all the while the clock is present, sometimes visible, often ticking, replicating the pressure Josie K feels under. Great sound design from Beth Duke underscores the relentlessness, tension and downright stupidity of the trial.
Some of Hims’ observations are beautifully incisive: the Ministry offers a wellbeing office but clearly it’s the system that makes it needed, so it’s a toxic cycle. Important questions for discussion are raised: If you can’t or won’t talk to parents, where do you go? If someone is making you do things you are unhappy with how do you get it to stop?
Child mental health issues are a hot topic post-pandemic, so it’s an important time for this show to be staged. Becca has a wonderful line that cuts through all the bureaucratic nonsense when she declares “You can’t tell a twelve year old to stop hoping” and it’s this enabling clarity that is needed for things to change. The production offers a welcome understanding for the young audience that now is the time to shake off their problems and live their best lives, hanging with their mates, treasuring the little things, and being the best you you can be.
Written by: Katie Hims
Directed by: Leigh Toney
Designed by: Rose Revitt
Movement Direction by: Sundeep Saini
Lighting Design by: Elliot Griggs
Music & Sound Design by: Beth Duke
The Trial of Josie K is aimed at ages 9-13. It runs until Sunday 19 February at the Unicorn Theatre. Further information and bookings can be found here.