I really would not have predicted that one of the most beguiling productions I would see this year would feature someone spitting a large amount of half-chewed Battenburg cake into a carrier bag.
Or, for that matter, that it would feature adult actors playing children, something that can be incredibly tiresome when done poorly, but Little Bulb's Shamira Turner, Clare Beresford and Dom Conway invest their performances with such conviction, such care and affection, that all worries in this area fade in the first few minutes.
They play Sophia, Finley and Freya Brackenberg; Sophia and Finley are ten year old twins, Freya is age seven and three quarters. Their parents, April and Geoffrey (whom the cast take turns playing), are an affectionate, slightly nerdy couple and their lives are clearly comfortable and contented, their world rooted somewhere in the 1970s.
In its first half, the show takes us through various Christmases, breakfast squabbles (the bartering of Rice Krispies for Coco Pops) and morning rituals. It presents us with the siblings’ musical efforts and shows them dancing with abandon to Cyndi Lauper. Every scene is filled with believable, beautifully observed details; the characters’ interactions and even the way they stand and move are utterly convincing.
And then this idyllic bubble is popped. Their parents die and the children are shunted around, first to an orphanage, and then to a new family who, while they seem kind and grounded, are a world away from the children’s ditzy, doting parents. Various toys are used to convey the confusion of the time after their parents’ deaths; plastic elephants and pencil cases become crude puppets, standing in for prospective foster couples. The family they eventually go to are represented by a running shoe and a perfume atomiser. Music also plays an important role in this inventive show, with the children playing their parent’s eclectic records, and at one point, singing a song by Sufjan Stevens.
The production is an incredibly delicate thing: the premise suggests an excess of sentimentality, but it never quite crosses that line, it never overbalances. Instead it proves to be both moving and ridiculously uplifting. In one beautiful scene, the children enact one of their favourite memories of their parents using Battenburg cakes as stand-ins; eventually they give in to their sweet teeth and gorge themselves on their pink and yellow parental substitutes. It’s a moment that’s both upsetting and playful and manages to push its audience (well, me certainly) near to tears.
The show ends on a note of uplift, as the emotive charge of earlier scenes is off-set by the warmth and colour of Freya’s eighth birthday party, which the audience are invited to assist in. The stage is filled with balloons and streamers and a sense of hope. Memories can keep the past alive in their minds, but we are left feeling that the future may not be all that grim. The last thing we see is a light shining over them, a gentle, guiding glow.
Reviewed for musicOMH.
During the party scene, everyone was invited to blow up balloons, something I am utterly rubbish at. My efforts are always sad and shriveled things, as was the case here - it was a pretty pathetic effort.
I suspect this was the last show I’ll squeeze in before Christmas and I couldn’t have hoped for a nicer way to wrap up my theatre-going year.