Review written by Flossie Waite
A Wizard Presents production
Reviewed at the Royal Festival Hall, as part of Southbank Centre’s Imagine Children’s Festival 2016
For ages 6+
As communities up and down the country fight to save their local libraries, it is this battle backdrop that I Believe in Unicorns seems, at first, to invoke. But an abrupt shift in tone reveals a far darker conflict at the production’s heart. Suggestions of the Second World War steal in, from Nazi book-burning to soldiers destroying villages, giving the show a sudden weight that it struggles to bear.
Based on Michael Morpurgo’s novel, I Believe In Unicorns is set during the grand re-opening ceremony of a library. The librarian (Danyah Miller), affectionately nicknamed the ‘Unicorn Lady’ by the children who attend her storytelling sessions, recounts the importance of access to books using the example of Tomas. Plonked in the library while his mum is out shopping, an initially reluctant Tomas eventually loves stories so much he is bringing his friends and telling tales of his own.
Books are a gateway and portal, they open up the world and can do magical things. They do magical things in front of us – Miller crafts a cup out of a stray page and pours milk from a book, she chases a kite that flits from tome to tome, and opens up books like Russian dolls, extracting ever-decreasing volumes until eventually finding a copy of Harry Potter smaller than a fingernail. An improvised story is the crescendo in a production that has been quickly gaining pace, with children enthusiastically shouting names and ideas, and Miller battling against the clock to tell it. Why adapt a book about loving books? The first half of I Believe In Unicorns provides an easy answer.
Then come the sections about war – about the Unicorn Lady’s father, who was beaten senseless for grabbing her favourite book out of the bonfire, about her and Tomas and the rest of the village hiding in the woods as they watch their homes burning. It feels like the second half of a different play. What it needs is more space and time – a few extra pages, perhaps.
And finally, the Unicorn. Though he’s a fairly constant presence, it’s not one that warrants a whole play being named after him. The unicorn story that ends the production doesn’t clarify things either. Again, it seems that something’s been lost in translation.
I Believe in Unicorns is a timely reminder of the significance of storytelling and the value of books, asking us about the things in society that are truly worth saving. Sometimes, though, this message comes at a price – efforts to deliver it can be uneven and muddled. This love-letter to literature is a measure of what can be gained, and lost, between the page and the stage.
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