Told by an Idiot’s Get Happy at the Barbican

Our reviewer Josey takes eight-year-old Henry to Told By An Idiot’s latest production, a collaborative adventure-cum-panto-cum-circus show, with a giant egg sandwich thrown in. 

Marketing itself as “this year’s alternative Christmas treat”, Told by an Idiot’s Get Happy is positioned to achieve a distinctive style of children’s theatre. Having experienced the show with my co-reviewer Henry (aged eight), I have no doubt that what the company produces is a tour de force of zany and unexpected vignettes that enrapture both children and adults from the instant they step into the Barbican’s Pit Theatre, which is, for this occasion, arranged as a theatre-in-the-round.

Get_Happy_poster_jpg_230x300_crop_q85A white passage marks the route into another world: the usher reassures adults that they can take a more conventional route to their seats, but the rush of children towards the gleaming white tunnel caught my enthusiasm for adventure and I bent and shuffled behind with my eight year old companion towards a white shimmering curtain, draping the end of the tunnel.

On the other side is the full expanse of a circular stage, painted like a clock face, in striking aqua, black, white and yellow. The design created by Sophia Clist is cartoonish –half Quentin Blake half Dr Seuss, with no hint of fluffy nursery drawings. Around the circular space are striped cushions at the edge of the stage and low benches placed behind them. The seating arrangement is perfect for the way that adults and children will refer to one another’s reactions throughout the forty-five minute performance as they watch individuals grapple and surmount difficult and inexplicable situations.

Pivotal to the whole experience is the sense of transformation, which Henry followed moment by moment, looking up and around at objects being flown down onto and across the stage. In some ways, Get Happy is a pantomime-cum-circus experience – forms which have a common ancestor in the Italian Commedia Dell’Arte. I refrain from boring Henry with how routines like the restaurant scene derive from comic lazzi, and anyway he cuts to the chase with a more pertinent point: the show is fantastic, he says “even though there was hardly any words and talking”.

I agree with Henry. I have rarely come across such economical use of language. Paul Hunter (writer and director) creates scenes which undergo a surprising number variations, controlled by a dreamscape sort of logic. The ensemble of four performers play to their strengths:  Elizabeth Flett as virtuoso violinist and all-round accomplished musician; Stephen Harper as the “sad clown” who – in Buster Keaton style – never gives up the will to overcome the seemingly impossible;  Sophie Russell as the astute and talented prima donna whose elegance masks a grittier determination and the superb young dancer and agile comic Michael Ureta who can effortlessly move from standing position to standing on his hands, perfectly stretched and balanced!

Each episode is an act of transformation and each scene moves seamlessly into the next: the paddling pool scene becomes the restaurant scene (complete with a table with a sawn-off leg) which then becomes the egg sandwich routine. Henry is called on to help pursue a tomato sauce bottle for the egg sandwich. His participation exemplifies for me as a drama educator the value of Told by an Idiot’s approach to children’s theatre. Like Get Happy‘s original use of the variety show episodic structure, the use of audience participation weaves in and out of the whole performance in many surprisingly novel ways, making the work seem more like a thing co-created by the children.

What is more, in experiencing the zaniness of its episodes, the young audience has a good chance of understanding how “get happy” may in fact mean many things: moments of gladness, trepidation, excited anticipation, delight, surprise, hope and sheer relief. Happiness can be complex, tense and joyful. Henry was emphatic that I give Get Happy five stars!

Date reviewed: Friday 13th December 2013

A New Adventure: The Jungle Book at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre

Our reviewer takes Alannah (aged ten) and James (five) to a new version of The Jungle Book, with wonderful wild animals and a pretty convincing jungle for above a pub. At the Lion and Unicorn Theatre.

Attachment-1The Lion and Unicorn Theatre in Kentish Town is currently showing an all-new adventure inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. But be warned! It contains “freaky” bits, according to James (aged five), who accompanies me. Together with his sister Alannah (ten), it is their first experience of a London fringe theatre above a pub. The occasion is especially interesting to them as they are on a visit to London from Australia.

The show is co-produced by Giant Olive and Simon James Collier, with Adam Dechanel writing and Collier directing this new version as well. Their interpretation sensibly and imaginatively limits the children’s classic to the “young man cub” Mowgli’s journey out of the jungle to live back amongst mankind. This artistic decision arranges the narrative through a series of encounters with flamboyantly beautiful wild animals, which are all affected by the main predator of the jungle, the tiger Shere Khan.

The strongest part of the production, according to my co-reviewers, is the way the animals move: that is, in more sophisticated terms, how their movement is directed and choreographed by Simon Collier and choreographer, Stacy Victoria Bland. The anthropomorphic qualities of each character are effectively realised through Cory Roberts’ mask and costume design. For instance, the elephants are created as a form of military patrol and the exotic birds as a bunch of co-travellers on their way to other parts of the globe.

Such transformations get the children’s attention, as Chuku Modu’s entrance as the vicious Shere Khan provokes a sense of fear. However, it isn’t quite clear to me why the tiger leaves off mauling the baby-laden basket abandoned on a jungle track.  The moment is over in a flash. Nonetheless, the basket’s rescue by the panther, Bagheera (Samuel Treon), is credibly realised through the character’s sombre playfulness, as is the nurturing given to “young man cub” by the wolf pack.

Dmitry Ser is an engaging Mowgli, portraying the character with all the obstinacy of an adolescent. The rest of the ensemble of seven performers (Yiltan Ahmet, Augustina Amoa, Giuseppe Fraschini, Michael Gonsalves, Chuku Modu, Rishi Nair and Samuel Treon) take on nearly thirty characters between them. In the course of their performances they show their skill through inventively portraying each animal type through regional English accents and anthropomorphic gestures. In this context, it was hard to understand why Baloo the Bear is characterised through an American accent that sets up the character”s identification with the already existing Walt Disney movie rather than the newly imagined fictional world being created then and there on stage.

The production is also let down by clumsy stage entrances and exits that often break the magical mood which the performers conjure up on stage. As Alannah reflected, seeing an elegant snake walk backwards out of a side door definitely looks less than awesome. Despite rather cramped conditions though, set designer Cory Roberts manages to build in a sense of the jungle’s dynamic environment through the use of angled rises and lush green vegetation over a bamboo backdrop. But the stage can’t compensate for the real sense of confinement when the tall and athletic bodies of the cast work in their animal packs.  At one point I did wonder what the effect might have been if the audience was seated on either side of a traverse performance space. Alannah, for instance, reflected that she wished to have been in the jungle rather than just in front of it.

All this said, the children’s overwhelming desire to see more of the show affirms that the producers, writer and the creative team have definitely shaped a good piece of children’s entertainment here. And, in imagining how an alien child can be loved and nurtured by surrogate parent, they have given rise to a wondrous way of looking at what it means to belong to a particular place, live in a particular family or tribe from which an individual emerges to encounter the risks and dangers a new life.

Date reviewed: Thursday 5th December 2013