Snow White and Rose Red, Battersea Arts Centre

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Battersea Arts Centre’s family Christmas show for people aged 5 and up is far from the Disney version of Snow White. The children’s show by RashDash, creators of naked, feminist, Edinburgh hit Two Man Show, is also far from conventional kids’ theatre. Combining their woman-led, political ethos with the use of live music, the company reclaims femininity and appropriates the traditionally patriarchal adventure of fairytales in this spirited show for all ages.

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Goodnight Mister Tom, Duke of York’s Theatre

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The WWII image of dejected, scrappy children with brown tags around their necks, clutching their most precious belongings as they are re-homed with strangers in the countryside is a powerful one. It’s one that inspired author Michelle Magorian to write Goodnight Mister Tom, adapted by David Wood for the stage, now in London after a successful run at Chichester and before heading off for a national tour. The audience meets little William, who is sent from Deptford to Dorset and assigned to live with the reclusive Tom Oakley. With a focus on Tom more so than the relocated children, this is a story about finding love again after a devastating loss. This part of the production is moving, but the story is slow to develop over a long time period and the flimsy, thin dialogue doesn’t support the large cast of characters, their development and the devastation of wartime.

David Troughton as Tom is a sad and sensitive widower, the complete opposite of the grump that his fellow villagers see. Three Williams, three Zachs (William’s precocious evacuee friend) and a gaggle of children make up half the cast; all are very much child actors. Alex Taylor-McDowall is today’s William, a lanky shy boy poisoned by his fundamentalist Christian single mother, Melle Stewart. We hear a lot about her, but only meet her in one scene. Stewart is unable to show just how evil (and mentally ill) the character is, though she does her best to live up to the previously discussed monster. Most of the other characters have similarly brief stage time, but plenty of multi-rolling and puppetry keeps the generally good ensemble performers busy.

But the first half takes its time to get going. It’s not from a lack of energy in individuals, but the overall pace is languid. It’s lovely and sweet, but flat. The war seems far away from this village, country life is slow, and day-to-day life is filled with routine and little errands. It’s in these small tasks that we see Tom’s affection for William grow: getting “new” clothes for him, teaching him to read and write and fending of bullies who pick on the “townies” and “vaccies” from London.

It’s no wonder the local kids pick on the Londoners. William can’t read or write, sleeps under the bed rather than on it, and his toxic mother skewed his worldview about, well, everything. Zach is well-spoken, attention seeking and flamboyant, the son of actors. It’s interesting that the London children the audience meets are either desperately camp or from the slums in this story; does this reflect Magorian’s preconceptions?

Along with Troughton’s performance, the puppets are outstanding. Tom’s dog, Sammy (Elisa de Grey) is gorgeously constructed, and full of movement and life from de Grey’s work. After the interval, there’s an increase in momentum after an unnecessary subplot involving William’s return to London and the effects of war creep closer, creating more tension and loss. The audience learns more about Tom’s past and the ending is a tearjerker and concise resolution.

For a family show however, the whole thing is too long and convoluted. Tom and William’s story could have easily had more focus with a reduction of other characters, more fleshed out scenes and additional detail about Tom’s life leading up to the point he takes in William. Fortunately, Troughton has enough stage time to keep this otherwise lovely, but flat, production going.

Press ticket for Goodnight Mister Tom is courtesy of theatrebloggers.co.uk.


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Beauty & the Beast, Polka Theatre

Beauty and the Beast - Polka Theatre - 20 November 2015 Writer - Charles Way Director - Roman Stefanski Designer - Laura McEwen Music - Julian Butler

Cold, dark days make me want to see feel-good theatre, especially in the run up to the holidays. Bonus points if it’s colourful, has some depth and at least some non-formulaic elements, even in a classic story. Polka Theatre’s Beauty & the Beast for ages 6-12 meets these criteria with a surprisingly complex storyline that keeps adult attention as well as kids’. Despite the target age range, there is some great humour and a touch of innuendo adults will appreciate (kids definitely won’t get it), sumptuous set and lighting and an adapted, relevant script. Some of the performances are wooden from the dated language and there are some dodgy movement-based transitions, but the school group audience was quiet and focused for most of the nearly two hours with interval.

Charles Way’s adaptation of the traditional story gives a much wider context than the Disney film and is more relatable to a modern, young audience. Belle is still the main character, but we get to know her father, Mr Godwin (Simon Holmes) and sister Cassandra (Géhane Strehler) well. Belle and Cassandra are complete opposites: Belle’s bookish, a visionary and frightened by most things; Cassandra loves boys, pretty dresses and adventures. The two bicker regularly and their money-driven merchant father is tired of it, a family dynamic that many children will recognize. Beginning in London and moving to the remote countryside when Mr Godwin loses his fortune, the girls also have to cope with big life changes and overcome adversity.

The women’s performances are consistently stronger than the men’s. Ritu Arya’s Belle is convincingly performed with a wonderfully dry sense of humour and an excellent character arc that isn’t overly saccharine. She carries the story and its energy well without being a stereotypical children’s performer, dealing with the old fashioned language brilliantly. Géhane Strehler is great contrast, giving young girls two opposite ideals to potentially relate to. Both have flaws, virtues and detail. Emma Cater is a sinister housekeeper for Jason Eddy’s Beast, a gentle man with stylized physicality and an imposing presence. Eddy doesn’t quite manage to carry that through after his transformation, but it’s so close to the end that it doesn’t matter much.

The set is layers of swirling panels that change colour and glow according to location, with the Beast’s castle the richest of them all. Laura McEwen’s set and Ian Scott’s lighting work together in wonderful harmony, with the occasional addition of puppets. Stage combat from RC Annie also adds a visual component, but the fights are slower that fight speed and brief. Some of the transitions lag and have abstract movement to fill the time, but this doesn’t contribute to the story and usually look pretty naff. Costumes, also by McEwen indicate the characters’ circumstances and changes in social class, but the highlight is the headdress and mask for the Beast.

Though there are still age and gender stereotypes, the adapted script empowers the young female characters. The detail and length will occupy adults as well as children and Way’s story is excellently constructed. With wonderfully visual design and a stirring score by Julian Butler, this is a lovely production harking back to the classical story without the glitz of Disney-fication or the panto cheese, and a solid option for a family holiday show.


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