Review by Shaun Blaney
Paul Taylor Mills presents The Cat in the Hat
Reviewed at artsdepot
At artsdepot 13th – 17th February 2016; national tour
For ages 3+
artsdepot provides the perfect location for this production of The Cat in the Hat: it’s welcoming and family friendly, with a bright atmosphere. The pre-set music blasts rousing brass band covers of the James Bond theme and Hawaii 5.0, and has younger audience members dancing in their seats. There’s a wonderful air of anticipation, and I’m grateful to find I have two friendly young families sitting on either side to chat to, making me feel like less of an odd giant in this sea of tiny faces (I should maybe try and sit at the back of these shows from now on. I’m probably blocking someone’s view).
I’m reminded of how important it is to see children’s theatre with its intended audience. What I didn’t realise is just how often I’d be looking to my new young friends for help during the next hour.
The play begins at one hundred miles an hour and stays there. There’s a mad-cap opening routine in which all six actors run onto the stage, holding Brechtian onomatopoeic signs and whooping and hollering as if the theatre were wobbling uncontrollably on its foundations, presumably letting the audience know that the next hour is gonna get ‘cer-razy’ (I still have no clue to what other purpose that opening may have served). The play then continued in this relentless manner, most of the action choreographed to within an inch of its life. It all seemed to rely heavily on funny noises, blowing raspberries and sound effects, more than on Dr Seuss’ classic text.
The set, props and costume design are greatly influenced by the illustrations of the book and look like they were born directly from the mind of Dr. Seuss. To my dismay, most of the actor’s time was spent informing the audience how to feel, rather than getting on with the story and letting them enjoy the show on their own terms. “This is funny”, “this is yucky”. It felt pantomime, almost CBBC in nature; insincere, even a little condescending. The actors work rate and commitment, though, cannot be faulted, and some of the longer routines which invested more time where refreshingly imaginative.
What annoys me is the apparent lack of trust the show had in its audience. It suffers from an inability to slow down for a single second, making it impossible to build tension or take the time to establish or build characters or even appreciate a well-earned laugh. It underestimates the intelligence of its young audience, emotional or otherwise. There were young people present with special needs, albeit not a large percentage of the audience. I’m certain these young patrons would have benefitted greatly from a few seconds between bouts of action to process what they were seeing (heck I would have benefitted from this), at no great detriment to the show – silence was a tool excluded here. Now, one may argue that this show was not designed for a special needs audience, but to ignore their needs completely forgets, for me, the inclusive nature of theatre, and shows a misunderstanding of audience requirements. If we can take everyone fully on an adventure then shouldn’t we?
There’s a wonderful development later on where Thing one and Thing two are released from their box and madness ensues, but when you start with the tempo and noise cranked up to eleven there’s really nowhere for that to go. Any threat for our heroes simply doesn’t develop and so there’s no drama. The play therefore just feels like a random series of unrelated events until it finishes. I think the creative team must have heard somewhere that children no longer have attention spans, so to prevent its audience becoming bored it made the equal but opposite crime of confusing them.
The young boy from the family to my right couldn’t help but ask his parents the whole way through what the heck was going on and he wasn’t alone. I was just as perplexed.
In short it looks wonderful, moves with energy at a thousand miles an hour and features a severely cut down Dr Seuss text. The pace makes the whole thing feel messy and confusing though, making the experience seem more like handing your child a mobile game than taking them to the theatre; bright lights, pretty colours, mad characters, but forgotten almost as quickly as it was picked up.
Shaun is a professional actor, spending the majority of his time pretending to be various pirates and space mechanics for children in Schools. He has worked extensively with Children’s Theatre Company in Northern Ireland performing for babies, toddlers, teens and superheroes in special needs schools. His views on theatre are his own, and you are welcome to regard them as hokum.