Reviewed by Penny Francis
I was left full of wonder at how English the show was. You don’t often see such Englishness nowadays, in an age when even that most English of bears, Winnie-the-Pooh, has been Disney-fied. That brilliant, idiosyncratic illustrator who lived and created in the heyday of Modernism, Arthur Rackham is the inspiration for this production, and I hope it doesn’t give Disney ideas. His faeries, who are the spirits of the dark forests that once covered Europe, are not pretty but certainly enchanting, spiky, mischievous and sometimes downright frightening. Nick Barnes of the Blind Summit company has interpreted them beautifully. The heroine of the faeries who helps to rescue a little girl lost is Anak, a tiny skinny creature with impotent wings and, sadly, a too-robust voice, quite out of scale – and did she really need three operators? The hero is a wise gnome called Drone with a friendly folded face, very well operated and voiced by Ben Thompson.
Will Tuckett is the producer and choreographer of this show, which I enjoyed and in part admired, though I take away the impression of an overcrowded stage on which the human dancers sometimes seemed unwieldy and gigantesque in their handling of the puppets. The central human character, a lost ‘child’, (played by a too grown-up Charlotte Broom) was clearly a lovely dancer, as she was able to demonstrate in slightly startling fits and starts, but she really could have done with a bigger stage or a more contained choreography.
There was a curious character with large claws over his hands which he kept pressed to his temples, for no reason I could determine, and with a furry detachable tail handled by one of the dancers. He was Gluck and I think he was the comic of the piece, attendant on the evil Dolour (Curtis Jordan, very good indeed) who could be quite scary at times, especially when his head came off and proved its independent power by triplicating itself.
The live music, specially composed by Martin Ward, was a plus, except where the clarinet drowned the words. The brilliance of wind instruments can be penetrating.
Under the initial direction of Mark Down (of Blind Summit), and finally of Will Tuckett, the puppetry was passable, and it wasn’t too evident that some of the cast had never animated a figure before. But the puppets’ movement was sometimes rushed and rough because the dancers, especially in the early scenes, were over-excited in movement and over-projecting in voice, as seems often to be the convention in English children’s productions. The faerie figures could have done with more quiet to bring out their mystery and magic, in contrast to the violence of the scenes with the evil Dolour. I foretell a few nightmares in the night nursery.
A comment on the historical setting of the piece: The story took place at the beginning of World War II, or so I thought, because of the gas mask and the references to refugees pouring out of London; but suddenly there was the sound and the mention of a ‘doodlebug’, one of the unmanned rockets which did not appear until nearly the end of the war, long after the gas masks had been made redundant and refugees were no longer much in evidence. Research is recommended to avoid such mistakes. Those who lived through this war are many, and the anachronisms do grate.
It’s a show to see if you get the chance, for over-6s, for its originality but most of all for Nick Barnes’ puppets.