So, we have been to the theatre four times in the last two weeks. Here are some thoughts, and recommendations.
Bláth/The Way Back Home
Pavilion Theatre, 27th September/ The Ark, 1st October
These are two different shows, for different age group, by the innovative Irish-language theatre company Branar. If the language issue puts you off, don’t let it. Both shows are almost entirely non-verbal, and their exquisite puppetry communicates across all boundaries.
Blath is an adaptation of John Lighthouse’s picture-book for older children. It tells the story of a little boy living in a world without colour. On one of his perambulations through the grey city, he finds a book about flowers and sets about growing one. From a small seed, a beautiful blossom goes, transforming the world around him. It is a beautiful, simple fable and Branar have pitched it at a 7+ audience, although the morning performance that I attended was entirely composed of older teens, for whom the graphic-novel aesthetic undoubtedly appealed. The silhouette sets, constructed largely from cardboard, were stunning and a fitting illustration of the play’s themes: how something simple can change the way we look at the world. The pace was slow and dreamlike, and would certainly fail to hold an audience younger than 7, as I learned to my own shame, when I had to make an exit with my two a few minutes from the end.
The Way Back Home is another picture-book adaptation, this time for a younger audience of 3+. Oliver Jeffers’ beautiful book is seamlessly reproduced to share the journey of an imaginative young boy, who takes a flight of fantasy to the moon. The tone of Jeffers’ whimsical story is greatly enhanced by the emotional expressiveness of the two central characters – the boy and his Martian friend – while a subtle original soundtrack enhances the lunar landscape. If there is any flaw in this beautiful, touching and playful production, it is the over-estimation of the expected audience’s level of engagement. The abstracted aesthetic, spare soundscape and concentrated visual focus is too much for a preschool demographic, even for those used to going to the theatre and as familiar with the original text as we are. For those with children of school-going age I would highly recommend it. You can read my full review for The Irish Times here. http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/stage/review-the-way-back-home-1.1949546
Good news too: Both productions are still running. Blath can be seen in Axis Ballymun on 22nd and 23rd of October. The Way Back Home can be seen at the Riverbank Arts Centre on 10th and 11th October; Buladh Bos Children’s Festival on 13th and 14th October;Baboro Festival in Galway, from 16th-19th October; Draoicht Arts Centre, 21st and 22nd October. It then transfers to The Southbank Centre in London.
Draíocht Blanchardstown, 20th September
Paul Curley’s Bake was an inventive exercise in storytelling. The scenario is built around the familiar ritual of a birthday party, as Madeline, daughter of the Royal Baker, assists her father in creating a cake for the prince’s party.
On entering Draíocht’s studio space it is immediately obvious that the production has considered its demographic seriously. Rows of benches are supplemented by two rows of cushions on the floor, a particular welcome sight for my 8 month old, who sat happily agog on the floor for the entire 45 minute duration. The set was also a visual delight, very contemporary in its reference of the DIY trend. A scaffolding structure constructed from white plastic pipes represents the kitchen’s ovens, while dozens of polystyrene discs of all shapes and sizes in attractive primary colours are scattered across the floor. ‘What a mess!!!’ as the refrain of the show goes.
Curley has a long history of experience in performance for young people and it showed. He built an instant rapport with the children, which is particularly important given the interactive nature of the show. As Madeline attempts to follow her father’s recipe, Curley invited the audience to inhabit the stage and follow the recipe’s visual template, ordering the cake’s layers by colour and size. Bake! was aimed at a 4+audience but my 2 and a half year old was absolutely engaged. He delighted in the invitation to the stage and happily accepted the cooperative spirit of cake assembly.
The story itself, however, was a little too complex for the demographic. There were too many characters, too many strands, and on occasion Curley struggled to get the audience to focus. Eliminating a few characters would solve this small problem easily. Why not just make it the Queen’s birthday? The play would lose nothing by writing off Franz: it already has its child protagonist Madeline.
Bake! was only playing for a very limited run, but deserves a wider showing.