You know you’re in the presence of superior children’s entertainment when the word ‘jelly’ isn’t rhymed with ‘belly’ (or ‘smelly’ or ‘welly’ or ‘telly’ – all of which leapt unbidden into my head as I typed this sentence), but is paired instead with ‘Machiavelli’. The kids around me still laughed their heads off. I just felt a teensy bit thick.
Not that this version of The Princess and the Pea at Liverpool’s Unity Theatre is reserved for kids who are doing Key Stage 1 Renaissance History. It’s just a bit of intelligent wordplay that swerves cliché and pulls the rug of expectation from under your feet, as happens repeatedly throughout this deliciously surprising production.
Directed by Nina Hajiyianni but devised by the whole team – writer Kevin Dyer, composer Patrick Dineen and four fabulously versatile cast members – this production is crammed with clever concepts that build on Hans Christian Andersen’s story. When I interviewed Hajiyianni recently for Northern Soul, she told me they’d decided to make the would-be princess into a refugee. If I worried even just a little bit that it might become less a fairytale, more a junior World In Action, I needn’t have been concerned. It’s a sublimely subtle addition to the fairytale recipe – one that adds a little extra spice but never stops it tasting airy and light.
The tale is framed by some jolly audience interaction and wince-inducing pea punnery from Graham Hicks’ man-sized pisum sativum (which, botanically speaking, is a fruit according to Wiki-pea-dia). I’ve seen Hicks in a few Unity Christmas shows over the years, almost always in roles that call for a little japery and clowning. Once again, he pitches his performance just right for the under-10s, resisting the temptation to over-do the silliness but still winning them over as a kind of doltish playground show-off wearing a beach ball of vivid green fun fur.
Sitting between Hicks’ entertaining opening sequence and his irresistible top-hat-and-tails closing number is the fairytale itself. Go back to Andersen’s Danish original (in translation of course – I haven’t yet seen enough Nordic noir drama to be able to read the language of Sarah Lund for myself) and you find a story that’s as stripped back and simple as a Grete Jalk bookcase. It can easily take a few big new ideas loaded onto its shelves as long as they don’t warp the tale’s woodwork, and this team have performed the task with admirable care.
Instead of a blandly characterless fairytale ruler, we have Keddy Sutton’s eminently boo-and-hissable Queen of Mean. She pilfers a few ‘mirror mirror on the wall’ moments from Snow White, blows her nose on her footman’s cloak, and generates enough sneering villainy to leave little kids wide-eyed and quaking without sending them running from the room.
Duncan Cameron delivers a fine performance as her son, the young prince who just doesn’t have it in him to be mean like his mum. Communing with animals in the nearby forbidden forest, the actor transforms in a heartbeat into a menagerie of wild beasts before coming up against Hicks’ wonderful Ray Winstone of a wolf. This drooling predator declares that he still has some room in his tum because although he’s already eaten two little pigs today, he couldn’t quite break into the third pig’s house of bricks…
Fortunately for the prince, he is saved by the ninja stick-wielding skills of Josie Cerise’s wandering stranger – a young girl fleeing from some unspecified horror on foreign shores to seek a few basic necessities of life: a little food, some shelter, a good dollop of human kindness. Like the other performers, Cerise switches from mood to mood magnificently – crafty one minute, innocent the next – and makes key moments genuinely touching.
This being a fairytale, you can probably guess whether the girl finds what she’s looking for, but because the show has been put together by some of the most skilled practitioners in young people’s theatre, the journey to story’s end never drags. Plus, it is studded with great songs, all seemingly pulled from a stylistic grab-bag that includes a bit of music hall, some rock ‘n’ roll, and a brilliantly extended gospel sequence complete with split-down-the-middle audience participation. Because the show is presented traverse-style – the stage runs across the middle with two banks of seats facing each other – the battling audience factions can see the whites of each other’s eyes. This cranks the familiar format up a notch and makes for some fun cross-theatre confrontation.
Without any children of my own in tow, I still enjoyed The Princess and the Pea very much, and the massed ranks of Y1 and Y2 schoolkids with whom I shared the experience clearly loved every second. The Unity and its production partners, Action Transport Theatre, can be very proud of what they’ve created – a show that might be a re-run of a wrinkly old tale but, with invention and ingenuity throughout, feels gloriously fresh from the pod.
Photos: Brian Roberts
To read Damon’s interview with Nina Hajiyianni, click here
Where: Unity Theatre, Liverpool
When: until January 9, 2016