Leaf by Niggle

J R R Tolkien

Puppet State Theatre Company

Scottish Storytelling Centre

From 04 August 2016 to 28 August 2016

Rating: ****

Review by David Chadderton

After ten years of remarkable success with a single production, The Man Who Planted Trees, Puppet State has this year launched its first new production in a long time, this staging of a little-known story by J R R Tolkien.

Niggle is a painter, but one who is obsessed with the niggling details rather than a broad canvas—he's better at leaves than trees. So he embarks on a huge canvas of a tree, but is constantly being interrupted, and he is far too polite to tell his visitors to go away.

One of these interruptions comes from his neighbour (who has no interest in art) who needs help to get the doctor for his wife and to repair his house, with which Niggle reluctantly helps, getting himself a severe fever in the process as it is pouring with rain when he embarks on his errand on his bicycle.

At this point, the story begins to depart from realism in a way that isn't easy to describe, but the tree takes on more than a symbolic importance for both Niggle and his neighbour, and all that remains of it in the town they leave behind is a single corner, which is displayed under the title, "Leaf, by Niggle", before it too crumbles and vanishes.

Puppet State's staging isn't so much a dramatisation as a telling of Tolkien's full original story in a solo performance from Richard Medrington, who is a wonderful storyteller who draws you into his fictional world at an unhurried pace.

However the Tolkien tale is framed by Medrington's story of how he came to adapt and stage this particular work, mixed with stories of his own family and its links with the First World War, in which Tolkien fought and which was such a powerful influence on his writing.

It works well, but the frame only interrupts the story itself once; perhaps a few more interludes would have introduced a bit more variety in a story that does have a few lulls in it when told in such long bursts.

However it is a very interesting bit of Tolkien writing that is well-told and very well-staged, with some lovely atmospheric music from Karine Polwart and Michael John McCarthy.

Perhaps the next Puppet State show could look more deeply at the Medrington family history, which seems to hold some jewels for its storytelling descendent.