In the Winter Wood

Reviewed by Caleb Lee
Polka Theatre and Apples and Snakes
Playing at Polka Theatre until 17 Feb
For ages 3-6

There is nothing better than snuggling under a warm blanket (or two for the grown-ups) on a cold winter’s day and listening to a good ol’ story. In the Winter Wood is not just a compilation of your usual favourite tales but an eclectic mix of stories from different cultures around the world. We follow a ram-goat, a pig, a goose, a cockerel and a hare on a journey to discover even more stories about a timid possum, a magical Baobab tree and a fat cat. This collaboration between Polka Theatre and Apples and Snakes is a highly interactive, intimate and lively piece of storytelling that leaves us feeling warm, fuzzy and wanting more.

In The Winter Wood Production Photos©The Other Richard

Photo: The Other Richard

The kind of spell that makes the children excited and their parents suspend their disbelief to go on this whimsical adventure is conjured by director and performer Jan Blake. Blake manages to single-handedly connect with her audience in an honest and dynamic manner that captivates even the tiniest ones in the furthest corner. This is not an easy feat for any storyteller. The poetry and richness of the spoken word, combined with her infectious energy, has the audience delightfully lapping up each and every tale. Even with the slightly restless or overenthusiastic ones, she does not shun or shut them up, but instead, skillfully wins them over with her charm and creativity. With a sparkle in her eye, Blake spontaneously replies to one little girl, who wonders aloud if the tortoise revealed in her palm in one of the stories is alive. “It’s as real as your imagination”, she says. There is never a dull moment as we are invited to move, chant and stomp to the catchy rhythm that punctuate this almost hour-long animated voyage. Watching Blake enthusiastically engage and excite the audience is a masterclass in session.

Matthew Edwards brilliantly transforms the Adventure Theatre into a cozy and safe space that resembles a campfire site – a clever design that works perfectly with this genre and might even leave the grown-ups feeling nostalgic. Special mention must be given to the amazing team of set and prop builders, whom I can imagine must have put a lot of effort into making this design a reality. Together with Silver Sepp’s atmospheric soundscape and playful beats (that make it impossible not to tap along), this immersive environment helps bring the stories to life. As the tales unfold, we eventually see the house that the animals build evolve in front of our eyes. This is not just any house, but one that is erected by five friends, who have made this place their home. Perhaps, this is the underlying message: Friends are the family you choose – a poignant and valuable reminder for many of us this festive season.

Amidst the glitzy West End Christmas shows and spectacular pantomimes, this intimate production is a testament to how the oral tradition of storytelling, when properly executed, has the potential to engage with the audience in emotional and imaginative ways. It might have been a blustery and chilly afternoon outside, but we left the Winter Wood with big smiles and our hearts warmed.

Note: The performance dates are shared between Jan Blake and fellow storyteller, Laura Sampson.

Caleb is a theatre educator, producer and researcher. He is currently the Research Associate of Rose Bruford College TYA Centre and also the Co-Artistic Director of Five Stones Theatre (SG/UK)- an international collaborative platform that brings together artists who are passionate about creating dance and theatre for children and young people. Caleb loves cooking, travelling and cuddly animals. Follow Caleb on twitter @calebleewh and on Facebook/Instagram @caleblee
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