At the core of Springs Dance Company’s The Magic Paintbrush is a somewhat familiar story – having initially been restricted and quashed, the protagonist’s childlike energy gains its freedom as the narrative progresses. Seemingly set in a grim and grey industrial world, movements are mechanical and expressions are either blank or pained. The exception is our heroine, who dashes about with gleeful abandon, bursting with joyful curiosity. Reprimanded by the boss in her factory for overly-expressive behaviour, she returns to her impoverished mother without the daily ration of bread. Despairing and low for the first time, an eccentric friend who values her non-conformist creativity gifts her a paintbrush which operates like a Pictionary-style magical lamp – whatever she draws comes into being.
The movement and storyline draw from very different cultural wells. The wordless movement seems to reference silent movies, like the 1927 expressionist film Metropolis with its hordes of mistreated workers plodding to another day in their underground factory, or the 1936 film Modern Times, in which Charlie Chaplin plays a factory worker who becomes rhythmically attuned with the assembly line and is accidentally force-fed into the machine.
The narrative, on the other hand, calls to mind more modern sources. It’s reminiscent of the late ‘80s children’s television programme Penny’s Crayon, an animation about a schoolgirl with a set of magic pencils: everything Penny draws comes to life. And the industrial exploitation in the show is Oliver!-esque, with the penniless mother wrapped in a threadbare shawl, the workers scrapping over bits of bread, and the clearly Victorian child labour practices.
Some of the choreography seems a little inarticulate – at times too subtle, at other times too simplistic. The opening chase scene needs more energy and better-crafted slapstick to achieve its comic aims, and it is the first of many moments in which the narrative isn’t entirely clear. Contrasting with this, the protagonist’s movements, expressions and girlish giggle sometimes lack any nuance, and are more a caricature of childish joy than a convincing portrayal of youthful enthusiasm. The role she plays is not a developed character, but a representation of gleeful creativity. She is part of an oft-rehearsed idea – the victory of idealised, free-minded youngsters over regimented, villainous adults.
The paintbrush’s feats begin somewhat late into the play and are a little underwhelming – the idea of magic suggests infinite potential but its use in the show is repetitive and formulaic. More could be made of the projection and puppetry – both have the capacity to engage and amaze but lack the necessary precision and craft in this production to truly dazzle.
The overall result is that The Magic Paintbrush falls between two (or three or four) stools. It’s not funny enough to be great comedy, not narrative-driven enough to be a compelling story, not quite impressive enough to be breath-taking dance, and not sharp enough to be cutting social criticism.
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