Reviewed by Flossie Waite
A Little Bulb Theatre, Bristol Old Vic and Farnham Maltings co-production
Playing at Battersea Arts Centre until 8th January 2017
For ages 3-7
A couple of years ago, Lyn Gardner wrote an article about the overuse and misuse of the term ‘immersive theatre’ (and similarly ‘site-specific’ and ‘site-responsive’). These labels, she argues, are “often bandied about with little or no justification” in response to a growing interest from audiences. I often think about Gardner’s blog because the same could be said of the term ‘family theatre’, which is attached to all sorts of shows when it is undeserved, inaccurate, or puts unnecessary pressure on a production that is really designed for either a child or adult audience, rather than both. When the term is dished out willy-nilly (and by ‘willy-nilly’ I mean for marketing purposes to appeal to a broader audience), the show almost inevitably disappoints or under-serves either the younger or older sections of the auditorium (and sometimes both). Creating successful theatre that is genuinely for families is a tricky business, one that must ensure neither young or old audience members are alienated by the action or the humour (no asides to adults that go way over the little ones’ heads, for instance), and that isn’t just thematically appropriate for any age, but actually entertaining. When done properly, it creates unique theatrical experiences that only come from considering adults and children as a combined audience to be treated equally. The reason for my rant is that true, successful family theatre is as rare as the Winter Unicorn that we hope to catch a glimpse of in The Night That Autumn Turned To Winter. Though the production doesn’t explicitly describe itself as family theatre (the suggested age range is 3-7), Little Bulb have thoughtfully created a charming, engaging piece to be enjoyed by everyone that comes to see it.
A trio of fairy wood wardens are overseeing the change in seasons with Dominic Conway’s chief pixie taking charge; Conway plays the role somewhere between scoutmaster and school prefect circa 1950, with his Enid Blyton-esque lexicon (“You must feel perfectly wretched!” etc). With the wardens’ help, we meet a variety of different woodland animals on the last day of Autumn, and as they prepare for the onset of Winter. Conway and co-stars Clare Beresford and Miriam Gould transform into a cast of creatures with the help of a knack for accents and inventive costumes, including hedgehog slippers and a buzzing fly with massive sieves for eyes.
The production’s episodic structure is accompanied by a soundtrack that blends familiar classical pieces with an original score and songs. The multi-talented triplet perform on all sorts of instruments – from harp to banjo – with music ranging from feet-stomping, hand-clapping jigs, to wistful ballads, to two bunnies singing the Flower Duet using only the word ‘carrot’ and whilst simultaneously hopping around the stage. Impressive stuff.
The autumnal palette, thick living room rug, and endless chunky knitwear are appropriately cosy for this seasonal tale, and sprinkled with some winter magic by show’s end. The Night That Autumn Turned To Winter celebrates this time of year rather than Christmas specifically, with neither sign nor mention of Santa Claus – the elusive Winter Unicorn is the wood’s festive celebrity. This contributes to the show being charming rather than cheesy, and as an original production it stands out from the crowd of adaptations currently playing. If these few weeks are about spending time with family, head to Battersea Arts Centre together for an hour of quality theatre that everyone is bound to love.
Children’s Theatre Reviews exists to help plug the gap in criticism and writing about theatre for young audiences. It is run entirely voluntarily, and needs support to continue covering and supporting the sector. For more information and to help give children’s theatre the voice it deserves, please visit our Patreon page.