Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Tin Soldier

Aaron Coates from the fairytale by Hans Christian Anderson
Aitherios Theatre
Courtyard Theatre, Hoxton
(2008)

Production photo

This is a company of international performers who were all students at the Ecole Philippe Gaulier in Paris who reunite for this production and with that background this production naturally has a strong physical and visual base (not least in the stillness required of the cast, especially Jennifer Lee, at its beginning). It would be a mistake to segregate them with the label 'physical theatre,' for the techniques they use are common theatre practice, but it is clear that this is a devised piece developed by the company from the Andersen story, rather than a pre-existing text, and it exploits a variety of theatre skills.

An opening with a young woman pretending to be a little boy and dialogue in an incomprehensible and probably invented language did make me fear what we might be in for!

It takes a really great performance to overcome my aversion to young women as boys (there's a story behind that, but this isn't the place to tell it!) - and then gobbledegook as well! But this turned out to be a bit of metatheatre with the invented language used only between the boy (Victoria Gillmon) and Pamela his family's maid (Philip Burgers, a piece of balancing cross-gender casting that made both work). The Boy, acknowledging the audience - and speaking English - explains that's how he'll talk to us, but when he's playing he'll use a Russian accent. We are into complicit game-playing even before he disappears and then toys in his playroom come to life and the real story begins.

That story, of course, tells of a tin soldier with only one leg who falls in love with a pretty ballerina, who in arabesque looks as though she has only one leg too, and of his adventures when he falls out of a window into the street. Performing a one-legged character: now that's a challenge to meet for which you might well need Philippe Gaulier training, but it is overcome by the most simple of theatrical devices, just getting the audience to agree that it is so! With the totally engaging Hitoshi Oya as the soldier who could not? This is a beautiful performance that makes the whole show work; while face and body are packed with emotion his slightly stilted English and delivery remind us he is not actually human (without that this would be a dark tragedy not a fairy story).

It is not all so good. The company's manifesto says 'Pleasure in the ridiculous and the conviction that theatre is as serious as a child's game informs everything we do,' but a child's playing is not the same as playing in the theatre: they are not taking this seriously enough. I don't mean that you have to have some deep underlying message but director Lily Sykes should know that you can't get away with taking out a collection of toys and immediately putting them away again for no reason (and it would have been so easy to have been looking for something!) just because you want to show the characters you are going to introduce life-size. If you are going to echo the theatre of the absurd it is not enough for actors to have fun themselves: an episode with ladies wearing teapots as hats and sailing in a bath fails to make sense or be funny; and if your ballerina is unable to do a real pirouette or arabesque then surely make a point of it rather than letting it just look inadequate.

Fortunately there are plenty of good things going on as well. I particularly liked a group of a capella seagulls and the way that the tin soldier is swallowed by a fish and pushed through guts made of actors - it seems like a huge shark to him but ends up being served up by Pamela as dinner. I saw the show with an adult audience who loved it but I think it will work with youngsters too, though they might find some bits difficult to understand (well, I did); there is enough going on to carry them through and the scary Jack-in-the-Box Goblin (John Hellier) isn't really too frightening.

Kate Guinness has designed a serviceable set of cardboard boxes, luggage and a stepladder that also provides materials for a makeshift-car (luggage lids for doors, a pair of slippers as windscreen-wipers). There is the usual cloth for water that also tumbles as a waterfall, and some effective costumes which ensure that the Tin Soldier's red jacket always makes him the centre of attraction. She cleverly gives the dog toy a plastic veterinary collar so that just this and no 'doggy costume' is required for the actor. Was giving the soldier just one trouser leg and leaving the other bare her idea? Obvious, once you've thought of it - but you have to have that thought - and therefore totally accepted by the audience. Now that is theatrical playing 'let's pretend' at its best.

Continues until 18th January 2008
(No shows on the 24th-26th, 31st December or 1st January)

Reviewer: Howard Loxton