Courtyard Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse
Winter in Leeds, you need something special. I set off for the Playhouse assuming I will see something special—the West Yorkshire Playhouse annual Big Stories for Little People kids’ show, written by Mike Kenny, directed by Gail Macintyre, designed by Barney George.
These Christmas Courtyard Theatre shows have become a highlight of the year for kids and adults in the know. What will they make of Sleeping Beauty, I wonder, and find myself buzzing with enthusiastic anticipation.
And they’ve done it again.
Kenny’s elegant, eloquent, accessible script starts and ends with a party. Between he creates a narrative structure of extravagant sophistication: doubling, tripling, morphing grannies into frogs, speeding time, reversing it, twisting it, knitting it. The fairies (good and bad) become Nannas (inspired, we learn in the programme, by Kenny’s exposure to the Eurovision Song Contest Babushkas, we have a whacky Nanna song to prove it!).
Princess Briar Rose passes through realistic stages of development until she is a surly teenager demanding freedom. Then she pricks her finger and starts the big sleep. The tangle of brambles builds and becomes adorned with the (happy!) corpses of adventurous princes (‘Come and join us’, they cry, ‘It’s great being dead’... or words to that effect). And all is washed by a turbulent stream of word and sight gags, with the odd current of existential angst.
Lift some lines and you could be hearing Sam Beckett: ‘Forgot! Forgot! Forgot! Forgot! You forgot!’ Never, ever, does Kenny underestimate the intelligence of his audience. We all work our socks off. We all love it. And to the grown-ups the added pleasure of seeing kids sitting mute with concentration then cracking into laughter.
Take Barney George’s design. The Courtyard is played traverse, a finely proportioned rectangle divides the audience. Within minutes it’s a world of its own where anything can happen, hats adorn poles that grow out of bags, a twenty-foot scarf and intricate streamers of roses loop the stage.
There is a community aspect here. The scarf, four hundred roses and 300 leaves were handmade by senior associates of the Playhouse, another thousand (yes, a thousand) felt roses were made by local kids from sixteen school classes. Back to the stage. Smoke and ladders emerge from holes in the ground. Props and wardrobe splutter with ludic improvisation and invention. The space quivers with vibrant colour, enhanced by Tim Skelly’s lights.
So to the thesps? Five of them, working even harder than the audience and apparently enjoying the experience as much as we are. It’s all go, all the time, dancing, singing, making music, blowing bubbles, losing the baby, polishing the audiences shoes (I had my hair cut by a prince, with a sword!) riding scooters, losing the baby again, finding it again...
We are treated to a riot of talent. A superb display of anarchic innocence from the dummy sucking Noo Noo Nana played by Simon Kerrigan, who also plays the preening, sword-wielding, head-tossing prince. (Crap haircut by the way, mine and his). Celia Adams gives us Bad Nanna Sandra, foot stamping evidence that not all grown-ups are grown up. Oliver Birch is a moderately camp King (also Nanna Dorothy Pink... also, BTW composer, musical director and sound design!
Sarah Vezmar plays Nanna Worrywart, who brings princess the gift of dancing. Vezmar trips the light fantastic, plays percussion, and often does a bit of narrating. The sleeping beauty herself is played by Natasha Magigi (also playing Nanna Janine and the queen), her giggling thirteen-year-old is perfection and she brings balletic grace to the big sleep (taken standing, the clue is in the pillow).
Finally Gail McIntyre. She has worked a miracle, integrating all this and creating a proper troop of actors who give the impression that they have worked together for a lifetime. No mean feat. Perhaps it is this aspect of the show that has me feeling that something is familiar.
At first I think it must be the Out of Joint Our Country’s Good, which graced this space a few weeks ago. Both plays feature perfectly balanced, colourful images—the sign of directorial excellence. But then I remember, decades ago, taking my two little kids to see the legendary Ken Campbell Roadshow production of Old King Cole. A frenzied world of zany but meaningful activity, gradually unfolding a story.
McIntyre is beginning to fill a space left by Campbell, in my book it’s harder to think of higher praise. She has created a show that excites, delights, and unites an audience. She fills the theatre with joy. Actors and audience became one in our enjoyment and it is a life-enhancing experience.
So—no kidding—how do you rate a show that is as near perfection as is decently possible? I am awarding twenty five stars: script *****; design*****; actors*****; direction**********.
Perhaps I have offered before this advice about McIntyre and Kenny’s Big Stories for Little People, but here it is again: if at all possible SEE THIS SHOW!
Reviewer: Ray Brown