UNDERNEATH an ever-changing multicoloured sky unfolds Tutti Frutti's world premiere of Yellow Is The Colour Of Sunshine at York Theatre Royal Studio from Wednesday.

Aimed at three year olds and upwards, Brendan Murray's tale portrays a little boy and girl, Yoshi and Hani, making friends, learning about feelings and working out – with help from some dancing magpies – how to communicate what is in their hearts.

Directed by Leeds company Tutti Frutti's artistic director, Wendy Harris, the show uses spoken word, sign language, movement and Japanese-inspired design to tell the charming story, aided by scientific research.

Murray's play has been been created in consultation with David Cottrell, professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at Leeds University. In his role as scientific advisor, he has helped to develop the theme of encouraging emotional literacy in young people.

Defining emotional literacy, Professor Cottrell says: "It’s the ability to recognise emotions in yourself and in others. All children are born with feelings, but when they are very tiny, these are basic and they don’t have control of them.

"They can’t describe or name feelings. One thing that parents do naturally is helping children to understand that these waves of emotion coming over them have names; that they can be distinguished and understood, and you can control them to some extent.

"The second part to this is understanding feelings in others. If you can’t recognise that someone is sad, you can’t develop empathy; if you don’t understand that someone is angry, you won’t run away. Most of us can’t ever remember not knowing when we are angry or happy or sad, but we don’t."

Why is naming emotions important? "Sometimes the physical sensations in emotions are the same," says Prof Cottrell. "Helping children to understand the feelings they are having and the environmental cues – rather than the physical clues – can help children to learn about emotions.

"Giving questions such as 'You must have felt very sad/happy/scared' can help. It’s important for children to know that all emotions are valid and normal, but their reactions to them might not be."

Prof Cottrell explains how watching Yellow Is The Colour Of Sunshine can help children with their emotional literacy. "The way that children communicate is through play; they love dressing up and role play, so it makes sense that watching people dress up and act things out is a medium that young children understand," he reasons.

"If we’re saying that the way we can help children understand emotional literacy is helping them to talk about feelings in themselves and others, the play is a way of doing this. Their parents or carer who take them to see this can talk through what they’ve seen and ask about what the characters were feeling."

Where does Prof Cottrell stand on the growing concern of a mental health crisis among the young? "There is no doubt that the number of young people feeling stressed has increased dramatically over the last few years," he says. "But experiencing stress and having to deal with negative emotions is a part of normal life, and something that all of us need to learn how to manage, so I’m wary of too much medicalising of normal reactions.

"Having said that, there are some very well-conducted research projects, funded by the Department of Health, using representative samples and using the same methods over the years – and these show that the number of young people with serious mental health issues has been rising.

"Perhaps only by around two or three per cent over the past ten years but the latest research now suggests that around one in eight children may have mental health disorders at any one time. That is about three to four children in every secondary school classroom; clearly a serious problem."

Tutti Frutti in Yellow Is The Colour Of Sunshine, York Theatre Royal Studio, June 19 to 22; 11.30am and 1pm, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday; 1.30pm and 6pm, Friday. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk

Charles Hutchinson