Underneath the Floorboards

Choreographed by Liv Lorent from a story by Ben Crompton with music by Kit Haigh

balletLORENT

Northern Stage, Newcastle

(2011)

Review by Peter Lathan

Back in 2006 balletLORENT produced what they called at the time their "first work exclusively with professional dancers dedicated to children and family audiences", Angelmoth (which was revived at Sadler's Wells in 2008). It was aimed at children of 4+.

In 2008 the company presented MaEternal, based on Liv Lorent's experience of pregnancy and, last year, in Blood, Sweat and Tears, she charted the impact that having a child has on its parents.

Now balletLORENT has produced Underneath the Floorboards, aimed at the under 5s and inspired by Lorent's desire to produce something which her young son could enjoy.

She has certainly succeeded. Unlike Angelmoth, which was performed at Newcastle's Dance City in traditional fashion on what was essentially (if not in actuality) a stage with a proscenium arch, Underneath the Floorboards is played (very appropriate word!) in a tiny, intimate space with the audience on the same level as the performers and the parents in the audience were told that the children were welcome to come onto the playing area and play with the toys and the dancers. And they did - and the company worked around them so well that they seemed an integral part of the action.

John (Jon Beney) is a little boy who, because his family are moving house, is packing away his toys (which the children have been playing with long before the show started) and somehow finds a strange world beneath the floorboards. Will he ever get back? he wonders, but a number of strange creatures help him. There's the Fawn, the very odd Guffy who is a kind of fluffball, and Mimic, a creature who mimics what she sees.

Beney captures the innocence and naiveté of the young boy beautifully, a character with whom all the children, boys and girls, can identify, and even before the show started he was fast friends with some of the more venturesome of the audience.

First of the creatures to appear was the tall, amazingly slim and flexible Gwen Berwick as the Fawn - en pointe with both hands and feet throughout! - who perfectly exemplified that strange mixture of grace and awkwardness of the young deer (Bambi without the sentimentality!). She was soon joined by Gavin Coward as Guffy, doglike and friendly, delighting in rolling about the stage, and then by Phlippa White's Mimic, catlike and slightly skittish with an initial touch-me-not-ishness (lovely phrase, chosen by Dickens to describe the maiden aunt in Pickwick Papers!) who soon yielded to the desire of the children to touch and stroke. Together they lead John safely back to his bedroom, just in time to hear his mother calling him to get ready to go.

The story is simple enough for really young children to follow (and adults to enjoy) - all credit to Ben Crompton - and the piece is just the right length at 45 minutes. Wearing my critic's hat I had intended to spend much of the time watching the audience but I was drawn into the story right from the off - and so were the children, judging by the deep involvement of those who ventured onto the stage and the fascination on the faces of those who didn't. And throughout the whole time, there was only one that I saw who needed to go to the toilet - and with kids of that age, that's a huge compliment!

There are a couple of wonderfully almost nasty but not enough to scare the kids puppets (no credit in the programme, so I assume by set designer Andy Stephenson) and the costumes by Paul Shriek are a visual and tactile delight. Lighting (Matt Britten) is unobtrusive and effective and Kit Haigh's music hits just the right note

When one considers the highly sexual, adult themes of previous works by Lorent (La Nuit Intime, for example, and Designer Body), the earthy romanticism of her earlier Luxuria and the often graphic realism of MaEternal and Blood, Sweat and Tears, the childlike joy and innocence of this piece comes as something of a surprise and just goes to show how multi-faceted Liv Lorent's talent is.

A palpable hit!

balletLORENT hopes to take "Underneath the Floorboards" on a national tour in the autumn. It transfers to Gatehead Old Town Hall on 27th and 28th January.