Theatre preview: Mischief La-Bas to explore the dark side of nursery rhymes

Nursery Crymes is a promenade performance taking place in Glasgow on 24 and 25 November, exploring the dark themes behind well-known children's stories.
Nursery Crymes is a promenade performance taking place in Glasgow on 24 and 25 November, exploring the dark themes behind well-known children's stories.
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The Trongate in Glasgow is a street full of history. Running west from the point where the old High Street winds down into the Saltmarket, it’s been a place associated for centuries with the teeming and sometimes violent street life of one of the world’s great industrial cities, where people of all nations surged up from the docks along the river in search of work and new lives, or just a drink, some company, and a chance to buy and sell in Paddy’s Market, a few yards to the south. Today, it’s the home of the Tron Theatre, based in an old church built over a plague-pit; but a century ago, its most famous place of entertainment was the Britannia Panopticon, an astonishing music hall with a basement menagerie of wild animals, scene of Stan Laurel’s first stand-up comedy act. And it’s in and around the magic, crumbling space of the Panopticon – still standing above the local amusement arcade, and cherished by a dedicated group of volunteers – that Scotland’s leading outdoor theatre company Mischief La-Bas is about to conjure up its latest show, an unsettling study of the dark side of the nursery rhymes we all learned as children, set in the Panopticon and in the dark lanes around it.

“We looked at all sorts of possible locations for this show,” says Angie Dight of Mischief La-Bas, sitting among piles of costumes and pieces of set at the company’s base in the nearby Briggait building. “But this part of Glasgow just seemed perfect – particularly the area around the Panopticon, with its history of wild and strange entertainment.”

Mischief La-Bas have been planning a show along the lines of Nursery Crymes since before the tragic death, three years ago, of Ian Smith, the company’s co-founder and Dight’s lifelong partner; and the original concept was very much part of Smith’s obsession with the world of street entertainment as an ancient, magical running commentary on the absurdities of conventional life.

“The truth is,” says Dight, “that almost every one of our familiar nursery rhymes has an undertow of violence and darkness to it, from ‘Rockabye Baby’ to ‘Little Jack Horner’. Some are said to be political satires – ‘Mary, Mary Quite Contrary’ is supposed to be about Queen Mary of England and her instruments of torture – and others are maybe just tales to frighten children into good behaviour. And as part of the project, we’ve been gathering old children’s rhymes from around this part of Glasgow, some of them really horrifying.

“Ever since I was a child, though, I’ve been drawn to the idea of doing the exciting things that the rhymes tell you not to do; so the aim of this show is to question what these rhymes are trying to tell us, and the kind of values and conditioning implied in them. And also to have a lot of fun, of course.”

All of which means that despite its nursery theme, Nursery Crymes is emphatically not a show for children; the lower age limit is 14, and teenagers aged 14-17 should, says Dight, be accompanied by an adult. “It’s going to be dark, it might be wet or cold, and we’ll be going around back lanes in one of the grimier parts of the city,” she says, “so I hope people will wrap up warm, and won’t even think of bringing young children.”

If it’s designed for adults, though, the show seems set to offer a typical Mischief La-Bas fairground of unearthly delights, through which audiences will move in groups of 30, at intervals of 20 minutes, from 6pm onwards. The physical aspects of the production are being co-ordinated by Glasgow designer Bill Breckinridge, whose work mainly focusses on community projects around Glasgow, involving organisations like the Scottish Refugee Council and Fair Deal in Castlemilk, as well as GoMA and the National Theatre of Scotland; and they will involve an initial journey through a Mother Goose Forest in a dark city lane, as well as a final encounter with a game-filled street-market known as the F***ed-Up Fairground.

“My recent work has always been very much about responding to specific places and locations,”says Breckinridge, “and this project fits brilliantly with that. It’s very much about this part of Glasgow, and its energy; and the combination of that with the theme of this show is just really exciting to work with.”

In addition, five artists or groups of artists have been invited to create their own events or installations along the way, ranging from a sound piece by Glasgow’s own youth theatre company Junction 25, to work by the Radiator Collective of Hastings, and artists Dav Bernard, Fiona Robertson and Liz Aggiss; Aggiss’s work, involving film and choreography, will appear in the Panopticon itself. And thanks to Mischief La-Bas’ membership of the international street theatre network In Situ, Nursery Crymes has not only already inspired workshops in Belgium and Kosovo, but has a chance, after Glasgow, of enjoying a further life in other cities, across the UK and Europe.

“This is a big show for us,” says Dight. “It involves 19 performers, including ten Mischief La-Bas artists, seven volunteers, and – we hope, visas permitting – two young Kosovans we met during our workshops there. I’ll be there as nanny, making sure that everything runs smoothly. And what we hope is that this will be an ideal entertainment for this strange time of year, just before the real Christmas season; dark but vivid, full of disturbing questions and weird night-time fun – and of course a chance to look again at these rhymes all of us take for granted, at the strange, ambiguous values they represent, and at whether we are still passing them on to the next generation of children.” ■

*Nursery Crymes is at the Britannia Panopticon, Glasgow, 24-25 November,