IT’S rare to see a children’s show for Christmas that makes such a bold attempt to tackle difficult and painful themes, without even offering the solace of a happy ending; but that’s what we get, in a flawed yet powerful new version of Hans Chrisian Andersen’s Tin Soldier, produced by Scotland’s company led by disabled artists, Birds Of Paradise, in association with the Festival Theatre.
Festival Theatre Studio, Edinburgh *** | Tron, Glasgow *** | Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow ***
Inspired by director Garry Robson’s experience of working with children in an orphanage St Petersburg, the show is set in a bleak children’s home called The Place, where the children struggle with demons of exclusion, through disability and other causes. They have a storybook, though; and their favourite is the one about The Steadfast Tin Soldier, the little one-legged toy who doesn’t match his 24 brothers, but who stands tall anyway, and who loves the beautiful toy ballerina until death, even though they are never together.
This new telling by Mike Kenny of Andersen’s profoundly sad tale includes yet more layers of meaning, though, reflected in the orphanage children taking on the characters’ names, and in the goods-van-like appearance of a stage full of big postal packages and cardboard boxes. There’s also puppetry and animation, text projected on to the boxes as the actors’ speak and sing, and a complex landscape of original songs and sounds involving both singer/actor Lauren Gilmour, and Audrey Tait of Novasound, who also appears as one of the children.
In the end, the whole show seems to me a shade confused and confusing for its target audience of five-to-nine year-olds; the layers of narrative often seem to trip over one another, the main story barely starts until a third of the way through the one-hour show, and the criss-crossing identities of the characters played by one performer can be baffling. Yet with Robert Softley Gale delivering a passionate central performance as Jack, the narrator, this remains a memorable, challenging show about the abuse of power and privilege and the pain of exclusion; subjects, sadly, that children often understand all too well.
At the Tron and the Citizens’ in Glasgow, meanwhile, there are shows afoot for much younger audiences. Tinsel Toon, at the Tron, is aimed at children aged around three-to-six, and tells the tale of a little town that falls into a mood of social breakdown, loneliness and hostility, after a mix-up over the time of the annual meeting to organise the town’s Christmas decorations. Lisa Keenan’s script seems to suffer from a lack of clearly identifiable central characters, rather than a whole complicated range of town-folk, leaving some younger members of the audience restless, and struggling to follow the story. Mary Gapinski and Isabelle Joss are unfailingly energetic performers, though; and by the time the lights come on again in Tinsel Toon, the narrative has acquired just enough focus to send the audience home happy, after all.
There’s no such narrative problem, though, in the Citizens’ devised show One More Sleep Till Christmas, staged in the Circle Studio by a cast of no fewer than seven, under the direction of Citizens’ Learning boss Guy Hollands. Here, the plot-line is as tight and clear as it could possibly be; in the big rambling bedroom the studio has become, with a frosty winter window and one giant bed, seven brothers and sisters are trying to get to sleep on Christmas Eve – otherwise, as their Mum’s offstage voice regularly warns them, “Santa won’t come.”
First, though, they keep remembering that they have to do all sorts of things, from putting up final decorations, to wrapping their Mum’s present; and the fun becomes so fast and furious that when naughty Malcolm says he’s not sleepy, one wee girl in the audience firmly points out that “Malcolm, you’ve just got to be, or Santa won’t come.” With lashings of live music played by the actors on an impressive range of instruments, One More Sleep Till Christmas, left, is a memorably funny and generous-spirited show, full of invention; and as to whether Santa finally comes or not – ah well, that’s a secret, only to be discovered by those who can wangle a ticket for this memorably jolly, magical and anarchic Christmas show.
The Tin Soldier runs until 23 December; Tinsel Toon and One More Sleep Till Christmas until 31 December.