Unicorn Theatre, London – until 28 April 2019
For a show in which hopefully nothing happens, there are plenty of weird and wonderful things that unfold, of course. Because a children’s show – or one for adults for that matter – would be incredibly dull indeed if nothing happened, but that’s absolutely not a worry here.
The premise, of what is revealed to be a gleefully absurd and metatheatrical event, begins with an officious security guard (Nigel Barrett) charged with ensuring a theatre is kept empty and no fun occurs. But a young actor in Elizabethan garb (Riad Richie) arrives to perform a play, with a surprise co-star and a giant pile of sheet music in tow. The resulting conflict is straightforward enough, with plenty of slapstick and Commedia dell’arte-inspired gags that have the school group in the first couple of rows giggling and shouting encouragement.
Fortunately, the production transcends this simpler kind of humour. Once the initial power imbalance is resolved, creator-director Jetse Batelaan introduces more laughs, but in line with the Unicorn’s track record of sophisticated theatre for children and young people, the themes present aren’t patronising; they’re actually quite mature. Through an increasingly surreal narrative, we are reminded to enjoy the present moment, not linger in the past, and allow our inner child to come out to play. Death happens, as do technical difficulties. We often get lost and need help. Always following rules to the letter and ignoring others is unfeeling and un-fun.
There’s more than a subtle hint of Beckett underpinning the narrative that simultaneously doesn’t go anywhere and traverses time and space. But this distinctive style is diversified by the addition of other kinds of comedy and storytelling, making it more structurally and stylistically complex than a Beckett play. A confident and clear dramaturgy that might look like utter nonsense on the surface is present, and it’s proof that having discrete dramaturgs are worth their weight in gold. In this instance, Dorien Folkers and Miniek Merkx work with the creator-director and original devising actors to ensure the script is coherent and truthful.
This is a deceptively simple and wonderfully surprising little show for little ones, but grownups, particularly those with a penchant for the strange and self-referential will find this an utter delight that reminds us to find the joy in the day-to-day.