adapted by Alison Duddle, Bob Frith, Frances Merriman, Jonny Quick.

Tour to 11 March 2012.
Runs 1hr No interval.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 23 December at Royal Exchange Studio Manchester.

Horse and Bamboo is a good egg among theatre companies – though this one’s for the curate.

Pantomime traditionally traduces familiar stories (while also relying on their familiarity); theatre that delves more deeply into well-known narratives has shown various attitudes about how far to veer away from events and characters audiences might be expected to expect.

So this year, whatever the value of Bolton’s Oz, or the very different Alices in Newcastle-under-Lyme and Northampton, all are likely to puzzle the youngster who’s just been told the well-known version by loving adults.

To surprise or confirm? Can the creative imagination improve a well-honed story? Should it be slave to tradition? Especially when that tradition might not be very traditional, dating back to Disney or a Victorian softening of grim edges. A theatre’s publicity can be designed with tradition (and the pre-Christmas market) in mind before anyone’s seen the script, misleading expectations.

Not with Horse and Bamboo’s show for 4+, in Manchester over Christmas as part of a longer tour. They show a dark, looming forest with a small figure innocently picking flowers while a distant wolf enigmatically watches. And, as might be expected with H&B, they have delved into various versions of the story. No familiar tags or clichés, as they gradually lure young audiences into a multivalent telling.

First, hungry actor Jonny Quick solicits sweets from children. Then he talks about the story to fellow-performer Francesca Dunford, who suggests she play Red, as she’s wearing that colour.

From such realistic, childlike negotiations, matters move to a model house with a puppet Red, then into the world of projections and images which the company handles with vivid economy.

But the low-key opening and the subsequent imaginative world of puppetry and projections split the production, while sudden occasional urges to provide panto-like humour, not particularly skilfully handled, detracts from, rather than constructively offsetting, the far more resonant, technically-accomplished sections.

And the story’s various versions don’t help with coherence – particularly in the way Red and Wolf interact – at times becoming less enigmatic than contradictory. Though there are strangely poetic moments here only a company like Horse and Bamboo could produce, the uneasy mixture keeps this out of their top-flight achievements.

Mother/Wolf: Jonny Quick.
Red: Francesca Dunford.

Director/Mask: Alison Duddle.
Designer: Bob Frith.
Lighting: Jonny Quick.
Music: Loz Kaye.
Animations: Vanessa Card, Jack Lockhart, Bob Eddowes, Christina Eddowes.

2012-01-01 11:50:35

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