For the Best
Conceived by Mark Storor
Unicorn Theatre in collaboration with Mark Storor and Anna Ledgard
Aimed at younger children (Unicorn's recommendation is 6+), this piece, conceived by Mark Storor, tells the stories of children who attend the school that is part of the Dialysis Unit of the Evalina Children's Hospital in London and the imaginative ideas of children at two other primary schools, some of whom are involved in the performance.
This is no sit-down and watch piece of theatre but a promenade which takes you on a journey of discovery. From the moment the audience is asked to take a seat in 'the waiting room' and a white curtain is drawn to separate you from the world of the theatre foyer, you are part of a continuing experience of visual and aural images as you are led, by delightful juvenile guides, through the labyrinthine innards of the Unicorn buildings. Corridors and dressing rooms, lavatories and showers, scene dock and lift and the Clore theatre itself have been transformed into a succession of environments that metaphorically present the process of dialysis and both ordinary show scenes of family life and the extraordinary too, for kidney disease and the need for dialysis distorts the normal daily pattern and concerns of those involved.
There is a gentle and obliquely presented invitation in the opening section to use your imagination. There's something in the attic: is it a big Siamese cat or a really little tiger that's making such a noise about being coaxed down? A boy turns a cabbage into a football. When I saw it this sequence went on too long but I gather that more usually audience will move through it more rapidly as small groups before joining others when the journey comes to larger spaces.
One child described dialysis as "your blood is put through a four-hour rinse cycle and you come out squeaky clean. It can drive you mad." In a world that takes this image further cuddly toys become the children in a laundry where, among the washing machines and mangles, are a few suggestions of the world of medicine. A giant magnifying glass on a sterile looking wringer top where a teddy bear is being squeezed dry, a specimen glass. Above the spinning machines a girl lies bored and listless, other children peg up cleansed toys on a washing line.
There are some marvellously simple and effective ideas. A fading light bulb glows with renewed life as blood is cleansed. Transparent dresses hanging up to dry are patterned with blood vessels. Death, or the possibility of death, soon becomes ever present - though he himself seems to be in need of dialysis and craves the crumbs of family life.
Not all the images and metaphors are easy to understand. Reflecting on their interpretation is something you can take away with you - and will provide schools with something to explore in follow up work discussing what particular things mean to different individuals. There is some rather obscure storytelling towards the end, developed from ideas suggested by participating children's own inventions, but their presentation is very much in the style of artist-generated concept rather than the narrative of a dramatist. Indeed this is a piece with very little dialogue and what there is as largely banal and everyday and delivered as in a way that it is not intended to be heard . However, some directly quoted poetry written by participating children - and recorded by youngsters too - gives an imaginative edge to some sequences, though I could wish it was recorded more clearly to make it easier to understand and not so submerged in the soundscape which accompanies so much of the performance with its sense of tick-tock heartbeats and rhythms of the dialysis pumps.
The input of individual artists, performers and theatre makers who have interpreted the ideas presented by the children involved is woven into a complex imaginative world. Occasionally, as so often with sets by people who are seem to be installation artists rather than stage designers, they sometimes over-egg with a repetition of objects (I felt it in a cake-making sequence especially) but gallery-like ideas are sometimes very effective in promenade work - like the series of domestic and garden images you pass as you move down a corridor.
There were times when I thought things might be a little too obscure or sequences went on too long to fully hold the attention over younger children - and it is quite a long play without an interval. However, the audience of which I was a member was largely adult so it is difficult to judge. Perhaps the changing environments and the thrill of being close up to the performers and in exciting spaces will keep them engaged. However, if you are taking your own child, and they don't already know about it, it would help their understanding to explain a little about kidney disease and the need for dialysis before you go to the theatre - they won't need any instruction in how to use their imagination.
In the Clore Auditorium and other spaces at Unicorn until 28th June
Reviewer: Howard Loxton