Tuesday, August 26, 2014

'I Believe in Unicorns' at the Vaudeville Theatre, 25th August 2014

Two slightly hungover men in their late twenties/early thirties attending a Bank Holiday show "suitable for children aged 5-11" raises a few eyebrows.  With no child in tow and let's face it, no obvious reason to be there (other than curiosity) we cut a slightly awkward duo. Fortunately the show also insists that it's also suitable for "everyone who loves great stories".  I love great stories!  At any rate, being sat in a warm theatre beats trudging through the gloomy, wet streets in danger of receiving a day-ruining bus-based puddle splash.

First impressions are sobering; this isn't a show targeted equally at adults and children like Matilda or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, this is firmly for children.  A one woman show, Danyah Miller takes us through a didactic story based on the importance of reading and imagination.  She plays the a village librarian and, surrounded by piles of books, she tells us the story of a young boy named Tomas.  

Tomas likes to play in the mountains, imagining himself as all kinds of adventurers as he treks alone through the wilderness.  Much to the displeasure of his mother he hates reading - and anyway, he isn't particularly good at it.  His father doesn't see the point either, referring to books as "sissy stuff" and explaining that you can learn more in a day alone in the wilderness than you can with a month of reading.  But gradually the librarian wears him down until he finally appreciates just how awesome reading is.

The simple, carefully pronounced syllables, constant gesticulation and the achingly wholesome pro-reading message put me in mind of those high-wire insomnia fuelled nights.  The hidden hours of 4 and 5am tick by, birds incessantly tweet and the bastard sun rises over the horizon. The shops won't open for an hour or two, nobody else is about and unconsciousness is simultaneously so near and so so far.  So you flip on the TV and in an anoxic daze, settle for children's TV - dispassionately observing the chirpy presenters through aching, red-lidded eyes.

Swaddled in material that requires no brain power to enjoy, just a vague unfocussed attention on what's going in the rough 180° degrees in front of you, I was settling into a dozy rhythm.  

And then the Nazis showed up.  

It's fair to say that one of the last things I was expecting in this cosy little children's lesson was the arrival of brown-shirted, jackbooted, fascists, but then I suppose they are the natural enemy of books.  The show takes a pretty dark turn as the Nazis proceed to drive the terrified villagers into the woods, destroy all the houses and incinerate the library in hellfire.

The children quietened down. I think I even heard a few traumatised sobs.  Thankfully this is a play with a happy end - involving Tomas proving his love of books by entering the burning library and emerging with handfuls of books, then instructing the villagers to do the same.  Entertainingly we become the villagers - boxfuls of books being distributed at the back of the theatre which we pass forward towards the stage.  By end of the performance we finally realise that, yeah - reading is pretty good isn't it?

All that's just the A-story though and appropriately for a show that fills the stage with books there's a ton of miniature stories nestled within.  Highlights are a quick retelling of Hans Christian Anderson's The Nightingale, an improvised story based on suggestions by the audience that features Jaws swallowing the rain in Australia and burping it out onto London and, my favourite, an imaginative retelling of Noah's Ark that explains what happened to unicorns during the flood (spoiler: they turned into narwhals).

Throughout every one of these stories there's a repeated visual metaphor of objects emerging from books.  Miller draws objects big and small from them: pop up houses, golden eggs, ladders - even the sea itself.  It's a clever device, and the young audience obviously adores anticipating what's going to emerge next.  Best received is a kite that mischievously hops from book to book, changing size and drifting up above the stage and a Matryoshka series of books within books.  That last one brought the house down, and I made a mental note that apparently  the key to entertaining children is to produce a series of consecutively smaller items from one another.

Also keeping things visually dynamic are a series of projections onto the stage.  These are carefully judged, so Miller moves a parasol in time with a bird flying across the stage, or we see Tomas running through the pages of a book.  Most affecting is the sequence in which the village burns to the ground.  The house lights darken and one by one the tiny pop-up book houses on stage are consumed by fire, until huge flames dominate the stage.  

The only disappointing aspect is that the top half of the stage is occupied by acrobatic equipment and ladders.  I think the show shares its set with Jacqueline Wilson's Hetty Feather, and that Miller ignores them goes noticed by children around me.  But based on the reactions of the children around me the show went down like gangbusters. One of the useful things about watching a show surrounded by children is that they're not afraid of making boredom, and though collective attention wandered once or twice, they were engaged and happy throughout.

This is far from the most complex and thoughtful piece of theatre I've seen lately but then it's not supposed to be.  I Believe in Unicorns has a noble heart, a surfeit of goodwill - I can't imagine that children won't enjoy the hell out of it.  It's only on until the end of the week so if you want to keep your son or daughter occupied for an hour or so until term starts there's few better options.

I Believe in Unicorns is at the Vaudeville Theatre until 31st August.  Tickets here.

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