The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark

Jill Tomlinson
Unicorn Theatre
Unicorn Theatre (The Clore)

Stephanie Levi-John as Plop's Mum and Laurence Walker as Plop Credit: Manuel Harlan
Laurence Walker as Plop makes it down to ground level Credit: Manuel Harlan
Stephanie Levi-John the boy and Laurence Walker as Plop by the bonfire Credit: Manuel Harlan

Are you afraid of the dark? In the Unicorn’s latest production, this little owl Plop is and so are lots of little children, no matter how much their mums and dads may try to reassure them.

Owls are night birds but Plop would much rather be a day bird. He’s fat and fluffy because he’s a barn owl—and a Brummie one by the sound of it.

Mum says he is only frightened of the dark because he knows nothing about it, so she sends him out to ask others what they think.

When he does pluck up courage enough to step out of the nest, wobble along the branch, shut his eyes and tumble into space, you can’t call it really flying—he hasn’t properly learned that yet.

On these daytime excursions, which do begin to get later into the evening, he meets a variety of night-loving persons.

There’s a little boy who tells him he likes the dark because it is exciting and there are going to be fireworks and a bonfire and for those it has to be dark. Later, he meets him again and joins some boy scouts round a campfire.

There’s an old lady who thinks he is a boy and offers him carrots to help him see in the dark but he doesn’t need those—his eyes have night sight already. She says dark is kind.

There’s a young woman who is an artist. She draws him (he has trouble keeping still) and in her sketchbook she shows him some of the other night creatures: badgers and hedgehogs and bats.

There’s an astronomer man with a telescope. He shows Plop the stars and the planets and where Orion the hunter is in the sky and how to find the Pole Star so you know the direction from the sky.

And then there is a black cat who is called Orion and who takes Plop hunting. By then, Plop has discovered that the dark isn’t dreadful and is having a fine time.

Unicorn suggests The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark as suited to the 2 to 6 age group. At about 45 minutes, I think it is probably a little too long and too word-based for the youngest of that range whose attention was sometimes distracted by their own interests but it is a great adaptation of a popular children’s book.

It is played in-the-round on a green, grass-like carpet with the children sitting on cushions or very low chairs. There is a stylised tree made of a scaffold of branches for the birds to perch on and climb over and a scattering of autumn leaves on the ground makes it seem very natural.

Laurence Walker plays Plop with wide-open eyes and round spectacles that make them even more owlish. Though he is dressed like a boy, he’s got a wonderful screech and several of the audience told me that was their favourite thing in the show.

Stephanie Levi-John is his mum and also plays the people he meets in a series of keen characterisations. She starts off telling the story but soon the two performers are passing narration between them.

Things move very quickly with lots of variety and a little of that repetition that youngsters take such a delight in. Each time Plop leaves the nest, it's the same shut eyes and falling into a somersault and then landing, at first badly but gradually better.

There is a real-live campfire burning with a song to sing round it to join in on if you want to and roast potatoes to help yourself to if you are brave enough to go out to get them.

Natalie Pryce’s design includes projection (by Matthew Robins) on all four walls of the theatre that shows the skyline and creates the pictures that the young woman draws in her sketchbook (and there’s a little hedgehog that comes hurrying on stage too) and then you see the cat leaping over housetops as Plop flies above him, a fearless white barn owl, as the two go out hunting.

Director Lee Lyford and his excellent actors, who build that essential rapport with the young audience, have created yet another Unicorn success. Take your youngsters and you will enjoy it too, I am sure of it.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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