Mrs Armitage – an eccentric, adventure-loving lady of a certain age – and her loyal dog Breakspear are at the beach and ready to surf. Waiting in the water for a big wave, Mrs A can’t resist nipping back to shore to buy gadgets and gizmos to comfort her pet and adorn her board: when surf’s up, she’s riding in style. It’s a simple story that is seriously overcomplicated by Ga Ga Theatre’s adaptation. The responsibility of staging Quentin Blake’s picturebook pulls the piece in two different directions – on the one hand, the production tries to stay extremely faithful to Blake’s text and illustrations, whilst on the other it attempts to do something theatrically interesting with the tale – and ends up doing justice to neither.
Two artists (Clare Barrett and Sophie Crawford) literally bring the story to life in an impressive opening sequence. ‘Drawing’ and ‘painting’ on the huge projection screen backdrop, they recreate illustrations of the two central characters: with some nifty sleight of hand, clothes and colours pop out of the picture and onto the performers, until they become Mrs Armitage and Breakspear. It’s a promising introduction to the two key elements of the production – the projection screen, and the overarching framework of artists creating the story before our eyes. But what begins with stage illusions and imaginative interaction with technology, gradually disintegrates into an over-reliance on the screen and perplexing interruptions by the ‘artists’ into the action.
Whilst the projection screen allows the characters to live within Blake’s illustrations, allegiance to each page limits what happens on stage. The performers shift about, trying to align their hands so that they sort of seem to be holding the picture of a parasol that has just appeared, or to be batting the image of a ball between them. As is the risk with any reliance on stage tech, there’s quite a bit of waiting around for the screen and the sound effects to catch up with what the human in front of it is trying to do. Reliance on the screen as a solution for scenery, props and characters blocks creative alternatives: whilst tech wizardry can effectively conjure up theatrical magic (as it does at the show’s beginning), overuse undermines the dynamic, vital but transient experience that makes theatre distinct as an art form.
The narrative thread is frayed, with bits of the book popping up in unusual places, like the episode with a drowning girl that materializes as a sudden tangent later on than in the original text. The story line diverts from Mrs Armitage’s quest to spend a day surfing, to the artists struggling to shoulder their creative burden, to Breakspear abruptly announcing he can speak, an ability that ends almost as soon as it is revealed. The plot is potted with interludes from the artists – surreal scientific experiments and investigations, or important presentations and announcements – that are intended as eccentric intermissions but feel out of place, disturbing the play’s progress and confusing the story. Even the language used is inconsistent – one of the characters randomly comments “Hashtag JustSaying”, in a play that makes fun of the fact Mrs Armitage has a portable rotary phone. Mrs Armitage and the Big Wave is a patchwork of ideas that haven’t been convincingly sewn together.
The metatheatrical elements of the play, and the unsuccessful experiments with and subversion of the narrative structure feel like an attempt to justify adapting Mrs Armitage in the first place. The problems that this production faces aren’t unique, and almost every picturebook adaptation approaches the challenges involved in a different way, but the motivation to pursue these difficulties seems rooted in potential ticket sales rather than artistic excellence. It’s no surprise that facing dwindling arts funding and smaller audiences, so many companies creating theatre for young audiences opt to make a certain kind of work, and it’s certainly not the case that these adaptations are never any good. However, Ga Ga Theatre’s production is part of a worrying trend that sees the children’s theatre sector increasingly overwhelmed by stagings of well-known books with big-name authors, that fail to decently represent either the company’s artistic vision or the acclaimed book they’re using.
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