Ida Marie Tjalve
Many summers have passed since I last had the innocent pleasure of watching theatre aimed at children.
Indeed, sitting down in the spectacular, if tricky to find, Unicorn Theatre, I was very much looking forward to trying to see a production through the eyes of someone to whom theatre is still a foreign land. That, after all, should be the aim of all children’s theatre to bring something to young minds that they will not find in their everyday experience, and which does not try to compete on the same terrain with the many demands on young people’s attention, in this 24-hour TV/Xbox 360 world we live in.
Interestingly, it is some of the oldest stories in literary history that are being brought to life in this revival of the enormously successful Mouse Queen. Indeed, the literary roots of the work are not foregone, and instead form a pleasingly vital part of the fabric of this production. It is wonderful in this day and age to see something that does not work hard to be “relevant” or “educational” while effortlessly remaining so.
The Mouse Queen blends a number of Aesop’s fables into an original story of a mouse, Tilly, who sets out to seek her fortune in “The Big World” of the city. On her way, she passes through “The Jungle”, where she is threatened with extinction by King Leonard the lion and his bunch of ne’er-do-well misfit animal subjects. Using wit to escape her fate, she sews the seeds of a regal stand-off in the mind of Leonard, who also sets off to the city to slay the rival human King and bring back his head to prove his potency. In typical Aesopian fashion, both characters find a way to help one another and the audience is given plenty of morally upstanding conclusions to take away with them.
Like Aesop’s fables, the beauty of this production, written by two of its stars, is the fact that it does not shy from the darkness or starkness of its messages. From the simple, imposing, even scary set, through the dark shadowy puppetry and the unpleasant creatures from the jungle, to the cheese-pushing “friend” Tilly makes in the city, no punches are pulled about the darkness of the world. However, rather than leaving us with a message that the world is to be feared, the ability of Tilly to triumph over strange, intimidating challenges is central to the play’s theme.
All this is done in a startlingly original way, with objects often being portrayed as words, and puppets becoming human performers and then shadows within a few breaths. The soundtrack evokes everything from an unfamiliar Eastern European land to a New York jazz club, leaving you pleasantly disorientated. Nothing in the production talks down to the kids it is pitched at, and allows them to take as much complexity as they can handle from this fabulous world.
As an adult viewer, there are a couple of minor disappointments in the production. A cliffhanger at the end of Act One is resolved, Flash Gordon style, without any real explanation, and, earlier, Tilly is set free from her jungle captors in a way that shortcuts the drama of the encounter. Overall, the plethora of moral themes, the result of the melding of a number of different fables, makes the narrative a little soupy at times.
Ultimately, this is no light-hearted pantomime, and it is all the better for it. Entertainment that takes children out of their comfort zone is a rare beast nowadays and the world is poorer for it. That this timeless but thoroughly modern play is living on in London is thus a cause for joy, and should be embraced by children of all ages.