Theatre reviews: Spike! | Exquisite Corpse

The story of a little girl and a newly-hatched dinosaur has a spellbinding effect in Spike!, while Alan MacKenzie and Kirsty Findlay excel in as two long-suffering employees in a children’s theme park, writes Joyce McMillan

Alan MacKenzie and Kirsty Findlay in Exquisite Corpse.  PIC: Leslie Black
Alan MacKenzie and Kirsty Findlay in Exquisite Corpse. PIC: Leslie Black

Spike!, Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh ****

Exquisite Corpse, Oran Mor, Glasgow ***

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I love dinosaurs, pipes a tiny two-year-old in the front row, as top Scottish story-teller Andy Cannon unfolds his latest theatrical tale, this time for children aged around 2-4; and it’s true that children love dinosaurs, and often can’t get enough of them.

In this gorgeous new children’s show from the Starcatchers company – celebrating its 15th birthday this autumn – Cannon therefore tells the story of a girl called Mary Anne, who is helped through the transition to becoming a big sister not only by her grandma, and her much-loved toy dinosaur Dino, but by her relationship with the dinosaur whose spikey skeleton inhabits the local museum, and with the fossilised dinosaur egg displayed nearby.

In a brilliant early sequence, Andy Cannon and his co-performer, Jennifer Steele, re-enact the discovery of the dinosaur during roadworks, and the assembly of its skeleton; and throughout the show, the little critics in the audience show a strong preference for dinosaurs in general, and brisk storytelling in particular. They adore the puppet baby dinosaur that hatches from the egg during a midnight dream sequence, and seem less impressed, and more fidgety, when it morphs into a dancing Jennifer Steele; perhaps a few more visual clues, in the way of spikes and claws, would ease this kind of transition between stage languages for a nursery-age audience.

When the story is rattling along, though, both children and grown-ups seem spellbound, as gran has to leave her zumba class to look after Mary Anne while the baby is born, and the two go on real and imaginary adventures together. Learning to live with a new baby sibling is the key experience of those nursery years for many children; and it’s both moving and heartening to see a performer of Cannon’s skill and experience, and a gifted dancer and actress like Steele, gently seek to help them navigate the strange landscape of that transition, with the help of jokes and games, imagination and dreams, and the love of a good grannie.

There are no dinosaurs in Conor O’Loughlin’s new Play, Pie And Pint drama Exquisite Corpse, at Oran Mor in Glasgow this week; but there certainly could have been, if the marketing strategy of the children’s theme park where the play is set had taken a different direction. As it is, the aesthetic of Sugar Plum Park is all about pink sparkly trees and cuddly pink bears, played by long-suffering park employees; and when one of them, single mum Iona, finds an elderly man lying dead in the staff chill-out area, a tense dialogue ensues between her and the park’s uptight manager, Frank, about how to deal with the incident without damaging the park’s public image.

This is the second play in the current Oran Mor series, following Johnny McKnight’s Joke, to deal with the pressures of precarious employment for today’s under-30s, and to feature a neurotic manger trying to prove himself to his family, who own the firm; and there’s clearly a rich vein of drama in this situation, as Iona tries to negotiate between the need to follow boss’s instructions, and her inner moral compass.

Conor O’Loughlin’s handling of the material is sometimes a little awkward; with such a dramatic and tragi-comic situation, there’s no need to load the dialogue with extra verbal flourishes and displays of wit. Given two powerful performances from Kirsty Findlay and Alan Mackenzie, though, the play emerges as another striking instalment in an outstanding Oran Mor season; and one bound to resonate with a generation trying to earn a living in a world where image is everything, and ethics – when they conflict with the bottom line – barely seem to matter at all.

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