July 20, 2008

Fairies and Folklore for a Modern Age, and Not a Will-O’-the-Wisp in Sight

By Jenny Gilbert

These two inventive shows are a daring and delicious assault on the imagination


Faeries Clore Studio LONDON Noah Babel's Ark Lindfield WEST SUSSEX

Fairytale, as everyone knows, is all about the dark forests of unconscious desire. Faeries, on the other hand, the new family show from the Royal Ballet's Will Tuckett, is all about, and only about, fairies. But this isn't a cue for you to stop reading. Anyone curious about the power of theatre will be enthralled by this unusual conjunction of fine writing (by Rebecca Lenkiewicz), puppetry (Blind Summit Theatre), movement, stagecraft and deliciously oblique imagination.

The setting is wartime London, and siblings Edie and Tom wait at Paddington station to be evacuated. By some mischance they become separated, and a distressed Edie runs off and spends a night in Kensington Gardens. As darkness falls, Edie, played by a refreshingly sturdy, radiant Charlotte Broom, encounters the park's various nocturnal presences. These include fireflies the size of toy planes - complete with whirring, battery-operated wings - and model faerie folk of different sizes - pot-bellied, earth-bound goblins, flitting aerial sprites, and the evil Dolour, whose head and hands detach from his body (an effect that is truly frightening). Each puppet is operated by three actor-dancers in 1940s mufti, one of whom provides its voice.

On a tiny stage, this could have produced an impossible mlee. At times there are 10 bodies crowded onto it, only one or two of them a character in the story. Yet, thanks to Tuckett's meticulous direction, puppets and operators interact, walk, fight, hover, and zoom about like Spitfires, without tripping over each other or throwing the focus. Minor fairies act as visible stagehands, heaving props about with little fairy-voiced mutterings of "easy does it, there you go, well done everybody!" It's wacky, but it works.

So often dancing can feel stuck on. Here it meshes easily with the narrative and the practicalities of moving puppets and people. Without recourse to wires or tricks, there's an impressive Alice- like fall down a hole, and thrilling "flying". What's more, Broom's Edie never stops being a 10-year-old. Mid-dance, she'll suddenly sit down huffily on her bottom and stare at her sandals, then get up and bound and whirl some more.

Likewise, Martin Ward's score (from live keyboard and clarinet hidden inside the shed) is so well calibrated to the story that you barely register it as a separate element. I only slightly winced when the big climactic number bore a resemblance to The Lord of the Rings. But perhaps it pressed the right buttons for a junior audience.

Despite its title, Noah Babel's Ark is more suited to an adult audience, or at least to one alert to the implications of anti- Semitism in early 20th-century Europe. The latest offering from The Rude Mechanicals, a commedia dell'arte-style troupe that tours village greens, it relates the trials of a hardworking Polish family in the East End of London in the 1920s at the hands of hostile businessmen. If this sounds heavy-going, it is anything but. Employing the broad comedy and exacting physical detail of the commedia tradition, the devised show, directed by Pete Talbot, skips deftly between tragedy, musical comedy and savage farce at the crack of a set of slapsticks (the sole prop).

Noah Babel is a craftsman who carves the steeds for fairground carousels. His current project is to produce a complete set of lions, giraffes, etc, in biblical pairs. The fee will pay off the mortgage on his workshop-cum-home, already bursting at the seams with howling offspring. But a neighbouring merchant wants Noah out, trying every dirty trick (delivered with cheerful violence by his bone-headed sidekick Stiffleg) to make him give up and return to eastern Europe.

A mix of blank verse, rhyme, stand-up, song, jazz and klezmer music (all from the same six prodigiously gifted actors) bowl the story along, leaving it to the troupe's mimetic skills alone to create the carver's workshop, a local nightclub, the mortgage broker's office piled high with dusty ledgers, and finally and most spectacularly, the flooded Thames, which brings the villains their comeuppance. And all on an empty patch of grass. Staggering.

'Faeries', Theatre Royal, Bath (01225 448844) 22-30 Jul; 'Noah Babel's Ark' (01323 501260) touring until 24 Aug

Further browsing More details at therudemechanicaltheatre.co.uk

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