IF: Milton Keynes International Festival, Furry Tales & The Little Gardener

Reviewed by Flossie Waite & Luke Billingham
IF: Milton Keynes International Festival (20th – 29th July 2018)

Much like Santa, I consider the summer my quietest time – a chance to rest and recharge before children’s theatre programming picks up again at the beginning of the new school year, steadily increasing to a crescendo of cultural activity around Christmas. Many venues wind down their children’s theatre offerings in the summer months, as families go on holiday or make the most of a brief sunny spell (this year’s lengthy heatwave being an unprecedented anomaly – I spent my childhood summer holidays eating soggy sandwiches in the rain at English Heritage castles). But there’s one particularly gargantuan venue which very much comes into its own at this time of year – the great outdoors! Having recently pledged to see more outdoor arts (after watching Ockham’s Razor’s Belly of the Whale at Greenwich+Docklands International Festival), I stocked up on suncream, dug my shorts out from the back of the wardrobe, and bought a train ticket to Milton Keynes.

For 10 days, IF: Milton Keynes International Festival is transforming the city. From a political ghost train ride to giant insects stalking the streets, the festival invites people to see a different side of MK, and it works: we didn’t see much of Milton Keynes’ famous roundabouts or grid system but instead enjoyed the beautifully-landscaped Campbell Park and the surrounding delightful views. The festival has a constantly changing programme of events, and we caught a couple of the family shows on offer: Theatre of WiddershinsFurry Tales and How It Ended’s The Little Gardener.

Furry Tales is set in The Magical Land of 3 – the castles have three turrets, the animals have three tails, and all the stories feature gangs of three. And as I’m sure you might guess, there were three Furry Tales performed at IF – The Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks and the Three Bears and The Three Billy Goats Gruff. It’s appropriately accessible material for audiences of all ages, who may wander up late or leave early: the stories are sufficiently well-known that most people could dip in and out and not be lost.

That’s not to say that Theatre of Widdershins is simply re-serving well-hashed material. Storyteller and puppeteer Andy Lawrence puts a new spin on the stories, developing the characters and adding hilarious motivation to their narratives: the three pigs can afford new-builds because of their mum’s recent windfall on the National Trottery; Goldilocks only ends up in the Three Bears’ cottage because she was running away from bathtime (“I don’t care if I meet a bear, ‘cos I’m not washing my hair, so there!”)

The sets are ingenious, and Lawrence’s engagement with them ensures that they are practically suited to playing in front of a large crowd. Each story emerges from a painted number 3 – puppets (cleverly animated as Lawrence’s two fingers become their legs) live inside, and the 3 frame becomes the front doors of the pigs’ homes, or the chimneys of the bears’ cottage. Lawrence brings the action out into the audience as often as possible – the pigs scurry over heads and shoulders as they run away from the wolf, and the door of Ziggy Piggy’s brick home is opened wide and paraded around so that everyone can get a good glimpse of the wolf’s bottom dangling perilously close to the recently lit fire inside.

Whereas Furry Tales could work just as well in a traditional theatre venue, The Little Gardener is crafted specifically for an outside environment. The performance takes place inside a greenhouse – lush lawns surround a central tree, upon which perches the little gardener. James Lewis’s visually stunning and conceptually ambitious design seems such a fitting vehicle to bring Emily Hughes’ book to life that dramaturg Teresa Burns rightly says it’s difficult to imagine it being done any other way.

Photo: Rachel Ferriman

The expertly puppeteered gardener tends to his flowerbeds through rain and shine but, despite his tireless work, his success is limited by his size. After almost giving up, a colourful flower sprouts from the weeds and gives the little gardener hope; he whispers a wish before going to bed “for a little bit of help.” At this point in the text, local children fix up his garden while he sleeps, so in the adaptation, the young audience are invited into the greenhouse one-by-one to test out their own green fingers. It’s a masterstroke that places those watching at the heart of the story and physically captures the tale’s central idea: that alone we may feel we’re making little impact, but as part of a compassionate community we can effect real change.

At IF, this interaction with the performance space serves an additional purpose. Much of the show consists of small intricate movements close to the ground, and takes place behind glass which becomes somewhat reflective in the sunlight, so that it’s only the first couple of rows that get the full experience. Audiences at IF are pretty big and mostly seated on the grass so that any action that isn’t raised above the ground is increasingly obstructed the further back you sit. It’s therefore vital that everyone gets some time up close with such an enticing, impressive installation.

Photo: Rachel Ferriman

The Little Gardener is wordless, using gentle music and visual appeal to try to conjure and communicate the world of its central character, despite the hustle and bustle of the surrounding festival. Furry Tales, on the other hand, uses bombastic delivery and audience interaction to cut across whatever else might be going on around the performance space. With just these two shows, IF is a lesson in the very different ways to approach the challenges and opportunities of outdoor settings. (Surely as important, it also taught me to always bring enough change to buy ice cream, and to pack more Factor 50.)

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