Leaf by Niggle
J R R Tolkien
Puppet State Theatre
Scottish Storytelling Centre
Edinburgh-based Fringe stalwart Puppet State has made a virtual return to this year's festival and to its usual venue with two of its biggest shows, each available for a week on-demand but only one night includes a live Q&A on Zoom with the company and a representative of the original writer.
Leaf by Niggle, in an adaptation first performed five years ago, is a short story by J R R Tolkien, first published in the Dublin Review in 1945 after The Hobbit but, as we are told at the start of this performance, there are no elves or dragons in it, and no puppets in Puppet State's production. It has often been interpreted as an allegory of the writer's Catholic faith, but as he famously expressed his dislike of allegory, he may not agree.
It begins, however, in a sort-of representation of performer Richard Medrington's mother's loft. When his mother had to go into a nursing home, he had to sort through the things in her house and found a loft full of reminders of his recent ancestors, many with links to the World Wars, the connection being that Tolkien took part in the Battle of the Somme. This opening quarter of an hour is interesting in itself—and not just because I've been through a similar process myself and also found family links and losses attached to both wars.
Medrington then tells Tolkien's story in its entirety, with barely a word cut. The family treasures become props for the story, and are always pertinent, never seeming to have been crowbarred in to fit.
Niggle is the central character who loves to paint, focussing more on the detail of the individual leaf than the whole tree. He wishes he wasn't quite so kind-hearted, as he hates being interrupted but can't refuse when someone asks him to help them out, such as when his whiny-voiced neighbour, Parish, who has no appreciation of art at all, asks him to interrupt his painting to get the builder to fix his leaky roof and the doctor for his wife who has a fever due to the leak.
After the officious local official has berated Niggle for not sacrificing his painting canvas to fix his neighbour's roof, the piece becomes more symbolist, as someone who is only identified as the 'Driver' takes him on a journey that he knew was coming but hadn't prepared for, then he is on a train, then sent to the workhouse because he has no luggage. It's unclear how long he is there, but in a character assessment, he is given his freedom where he is reunited with Parish and they live and work together around a tree: Niggle's tree, now made real.
What this all means or symbolises is open to debate, but Tolkien's words are carefully chosen and tightly written, while Medrington speaks them with great clarity and a comforting, laid-back delivery. The piece is directed by Andy Cannon with sound and music by well-known Scotland-based musicians M J McCarthy and Karin Polwart, which sets the tone perfectly.
This has a very different tone to the other Puppet State production being presented in this way, and I'm still not sure what I make of Tolkien's story, but this is a very good and complete presentation of it that is worth seeing. If, however, you would like to see Medrington reunited with Dog, The Man Who Planted Trees, one of my favourite Fringe shows of the last twenty years, is available from Tuesday 24 August.
Reviewer: David Chadderton