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

 

The Gruffalo

A Walk in the Woods on Shaftesbury Avenue: 16306_show_portrait_largeThe Gruffalo at the Lyric Theatre

Julia Donaldson’s story about a little mouse on an epic journey returns to the West End stage, with lively performances all round. Eight-year-old Henry helps our reviewer dish out the stars for this recommended Christmas treat for young families. At the Lyric Theatre.

Julia Donaldson’s The Gruffalo has sold 10.5 million copies in 31 editions worldwide. Illustrated by Axel Scheffler, like all great stories it appears a beautifully simple one. It is about a mouse’s walk in the woods. Both author and illustrator have won numerous awards, including Donaldson’s appointment in 2011 as the UK’s Children’s Laureate.

Adapted for the stage by Tall Stories Theatre, the play of The Gruffalo has visited the West End for the past five years. It now returns to the Lyric Theatre, an occasion which was anticipated with excitement by my co-reviewers, eight year-old Henry and his six year-old brother, Elliot. As we take our seats we view an impressive golden rusty coloured forest, and Henry asks me for a pen and paper so he can record the production’s first star. He feasts on the spectacle – as do I.

As the lights dim and a gasp from the children in the theatre heralds the start of the performance, two men, dressed very plainly in grey working clothes, carry a small sleeping creature onto the stage. The cast of three – Susanna Jennings (Mouse), Tom Crook (The Gruffalo) and the Predators, played by Timothy Richey – are a strong ensemble, though very occasionally I felt that their ad-libbing was aimed at each other rather than the audience.

Henry was particularly impressed with Timothy Richey’s transformation from second storyteller to fox, owl and snake. He thought the costuming was perfect in getting the sense of the different characters, and I too found the scripting and choreographing of the three roles clever, especially the anthropomorphic characterisation of the fox as a farmer-squire, the owl as a bomber commander and the snake as a hip swinging Latin dancer.

Most impressively, I notice how this is part of an overall direction for delineating stage conventions from storytelling ones. For instance, the opening is performed as a kind of prologue that establishes the mouse-creature’s love of nuts. It is devised with all the banter of pantomime and the visual slickness of a magician’s act. This is not “the book” but a way of sharing the theme of the book with a live audience. Henry is completely engaged in unravelling the challenge facing the little mouse, who must face up to fear and risk in order to find her favourite food.

The real magic, however, happens as the dynamic storytellers continue to build and share Julia Donaldson’s text with the audience. Their grey workman-like outfits make perfect sense as they create the world of the story in which the forest and its creatures exist. The creative team of Creative Producer Toby Mitchell, Director Olivia Jacobs, Designer Isla Shaw and composers John Fiber and Andy Shaw inventively realise on stage the world built by Donaldson in The Gruffalo, while the script captures the rhythm of the original text.

The transformation of the main storyteller into the Gruffalo is all part of the constant transformations taking place which, thankfully for parents of children attached to the book, are anything but disappointing. Six-year-old Elliot checked out the authenticity of the monster on stage by unrolling the poster-cum-programme and scrutinising the bouncing mass of fur and purple spikes on stage against Axel Scheffler’s illustration. Luckily, the stage presentation passed the test.

Date reviewed: Saturday 23rd November 2013

Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain II

How Henry laughed! Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain II at the Garrick Theatre

Eight-year-old Henry takes our reviewer on a truth-seeking historical adventure. Birmingham Stage Company’s sensationally-scripted Barmy Britain II proves that satire for kids is in fine shape. At the Garrick Theatre.

The Garrick Theatre was buzzing with the energy of children, eager to see Birmingham Stage Company’sBarmy Britain II, the latest live performance of the popular television and Scholastic reading book phenomenon from Horrible HistoriesAs the wise child, Henry, aged 8, who accompanied me to the event pointed out, having followed HH since his seventh birthday, he knows that he can depend on its storytellers to give him historical facts which school books just don’t believe children can handle. Such wisdom at such a young age. I ask if he will help me rate the show afterwards. He seems unfazed by the responsibility.

After finding our seats in the stalls and, in response to Henry’s prompts, giving minute by minute announcements on when the show is due to start, we scrutinise the theatre left and right, floor to ceiling. When finally, not a moment too soon for Henry, the safety curtain rises, we view the stage set consisting of two long strips of material upstage ablaze with changing colour from stage lights. In front of the towering panels of light stand two ‘trees’, equidistant right and left of each other, loaded with props and costumes. Between them but further down, centrestage, is a multi-panelled cupboard/ cart-like contraption which becomes a source of wonder throughout the show.

I ask Henry what objects he recognizes on the stage. He points to one of the helmets hanging from the costume ‘tree’, upstage right. As natural as breathing, he then continues to say how the lighted panels, now bathed in a deep blue, look like ‘waterfalls of light’. I’m in awe of the description and ask if I can use it in my review!

Beams of dazzling magenta now frame the first performer, Anthony Spargo, of the duo who will play a host of characters between them. Spargo warms up the audience in traditional comic style, with witticisms and word puns. The laughs come throughout his routine of flinging out body parts of scalp, lungs and heart, to signal how the show will be ‘hair-raising’, ‘breath-taking’ and ‘heart-stopping’. He has Henry’s attention, his knowing smile says to me, ‘Yes! You are being as horrible as I know you can be’.

The contract between Anthony and audience is a done deal and the children cheer on the total irreverent hypothesis that Britain it a barmy place and its history proves that it’s so when suddenly and without warning, arrives the second performer, Lauryn Redding, dressed as a City of-Westminster traffic warden. She demands that our irreverent clown and his unlicensed cart ‘move on’. The wrangling between the duo cleverly introduces how the telling of history is mixed up with the social permission to speak in public and how history is contentious and complex.

The rest of the hour-long show consists of representations of key English historical figures: Queen Boudicca, Richard I (the Lionheart), Queen Bess and Queen Victoria. In between the VIPs, the audience also sees representations of ordinary people such as the barrow wheeler of medieval times who goes from house to house collecting the dead during the Black Death and the ‘Groom of the Stool’ of the Tudor era, responsible for wiping King Henry VIII’s bottom!

Terry Deary and Neal Foster craft a sensational script, which is also directed by Foster.  It is punchy and engaging, using many pantomime conventions: cross-dressing, the arrangement of popular songs with adapted lyrics, mock fighting and audience participation. Sound effects, either in the choregraphed action or within the scripted dialogue, never miss a beat and the use of dance styles such as rap, make the routines a wonderful way for the audience to travel between past and present.

Looking at Henry’s smiling face, I know he’s weathered the shocking yarns extremely well. On the other hand, I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed when Henry beckons to tell me he gives the show four stars. Only four stars, I ask? He explains, ‘I didn’t like how the smoke was trying to cover up when they were changing their costumes. I could see through the smoke’. I probe a little.  What was so bad about that? Henry sticks to his point about how the smoke, for him, inadequately covers up the actors changing, barely obscured by smoke gushing from the smoke machine.

I have my own reason for giving the show four stars too due to what I feel is the show’s poor ending.  For me, it seems to abandon the dramatically interesting critical stance maintained throughout, for a fairly facile conclusion which attempts to say that our current leaders seem worse than the barmy characters presented in performance. What can the audience do with this historical comparison? Are Deary and Foster seriously putting forward that hundreds of years of English leaders who have worked for justice and democracy amount to nothing in human history?

I would have liked, in keeping with its pantomime style, a reprise that underscores the themes established by each of the Horrible Histories during Barmy Britain II. Each historical vignette was perfect in itself, beautifully constructed and presented by two extraordinarily talented young performers. In the end, I applaud their dynamic realisation of the fun of putting on a critical view of the past to better understand and interact with it in the present.

Date reviewed: Saturday 12th October 2013

CELL at the Little Angel Theatre

 

Living with MND, not dying from it: CELL at the Little Angel Theatre

The message of the play is that people live with MND rather than simple die from it. I hope Smoking Apples and Little Cauliflower Theatre have a chance to fully develop the living which their central character does with the condition. At the Little Angel Theatre.

Little Angel’s Hatch 2013 Festival is a showcase of work-in-progress performances by new and established puppetry performers and companies. The two companies in the mini-festival I viewed were Smoking Apples and Little Cauliflower Theatre, who combine to stage CELL, the story of a man who goes from being diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease to becoming wheelchair bound. Like the most famous MND sufferer, Stephen Hawking, he comes to rely on a computer-generated voice. That voice is effectively the narrator of the show.

The production is an apt subject for a drama using the art of hand-held puppets. The distinction between the human movement seen in the energy and craft of the puppeteers make each movement by the puppet seem extraordinary. The contrast seems even sharper as I watch the characterisation of a man incrementally becoming less able to move. I note the beautifully contracted puppet as a fitting representation of “everyman”.

Awareness-raising theatre can easily deteriorate into didacticism. Thankfully in CELL the talent and intelligence of co-creators Matthew Lloyd, Molly Freeman, William Aubrey-Jones and Carly Mc Connell avoids the problem. This is mostly because they focus on imaginatively solving how the central character of their drama comes to live with MND. Again, this too might have succumbed to banality except that in choosing to show the quirkiness of a lone man living with his goldfish, the audience is able to watch everyday things slightly off-centre. Turning the life of the goldfish into a metaphor itself, the audience uneasily comes to understand the limits of experience on all of us.

The arrangement of the story shows the man living between his hobby of trainspotting, his home with the goldfish and his dealings with doctors and hospitals. This is effectively done with probing beams of light and the use of shadow puppetry upstage. Then comes a voyage on the Eurostar which takes the narrative to another level. The use of music and lighting is strongly suggestive of a man eking all that he can out of life.

This is not to say that this isn’t a work-in-progress: there’s more to be done on building the narrative and characterising the central figure and other roles in the drama. In particular, I believe that there’s more to be done in showing the progression of MND. The differentiation from first diagnosis to wheelchair seemed to me seemed still too generalised. If anything, like the computerised voice, the final grip of MND seems too uncontested.

Similarly, the events in and between the three locations which the character visits on his Eurostar journey seems very static and time-filling instead of revealing why the character chose to go on the voyage: was it a quest or just a holiday? Its purpose wasn’t clear and only a vague causality is implied between “living with MND” and “going abroad”. Nor does the drama seem to take into account that mobility is so much riskier when not in your usual habitat: why wasn’t this the case for central character in CELL?

I appreciate from the notes written online in the production’s rehearsal journal that the development of the second puppet is still very embryonic, but again dealing with essential motivation did not seem present. It took me some time to understand that the second character was not just another man who was meant to be a “healthy” body, reflecting back to the central figure his desire to be well again.

Nonetheless, this is potentially a very engaging and worthwhile drama of a life embraced by the challenged with motor neurone disease. The final message of the play emphasises that the best course of action is to see yourself living with MND rather than dying from it. If that is the case, then I hope Smoking Apples and Little Cauliflower Theatre have a chance to further develop the living which their central character does with the condition.

Date reviewed: Saturday 7th September 2013