Review: Suddenly…! at the Cockpit Theatre

I always imagine it must be pretty terrifying making theatre for children. Grownups will (usually) at least pretend to look interested, but with kids there’s no such guarantee. Fortunately, Really Big Pants Theatre’s Suddenly…! had its young audience at the Cockpit Theatre spellbound from the start… and the adults had a pretty good time too.

Photo credit: ID Photography

Suddenly…! takes elements from different fairy tales and mixes them together in an original, exciting and heartwarming story about the importance of friendship. Red Riding Hood, Mr Wolf, a faulty genie and a wicked stepmother all make an appearance, as a young boy’s well-intentioned attempt to get his dad’s attention goes horribly wrong, and we set out on a quest to recover three special items and help Grandma save the day.

The show’s written and performed by Really Big Pants’ Joe Bromley and Willow Nash, who play all the characters with the help of assorted interesting headwear and a variety of accents, not to mention boundless enthusiasm and obvious enjoyment. It’s thoroughly entertaining, but there’s also a strong educational element to the show; besides its core message about how friendship and spending quality time together are more important than having lots of stuff, there are also brief lessons in history and science, a bit of feminism (no princesses waiting around for a man to rescue them in this story, thank you very much), and – to my delight – a tribute to the late great Roald Dahl. Afterwards, children can take away worksheets and even enter a story-writing competition for a chance to see their work published in the Ham & High newspaper.

Not surprisingly for a kids’ show, audience participation is encouraged, but in a gentle, positive way that means nobody feels singled out or uncomfortable – and it’s a testament to how enjoyable it all is that everyone’s more than happy to join in (yes, even I was up on my feet doing the genie dance). Judging by the enthusiasm of our relatively small audience at the Cockpit, I can only imagine the noise levels when the show’s performed in a school hall full of excited children.

Photo credit: ID Photography

The show is also very funny, and like any good kids’ story contains jokes for both children and adults, so everyone stays engaged and entertained throughout. But the humour isn’t the only thing that works on two levels – as the story itself points out, it’s not just children who need to be reminded that material possessions aren’t everything, or that we should put down our phones once in a while and spend some time with the people we care about.

Suddenly…! is a great story and a lot of fun for the whole family, performed with an infectious energy and enthusiasm by two ladies who clearly love what they do. It’s educational but never boring, and enjoyably silly without being patronising. And because Really Big Pants encourage their audience – young and old – to go away and write their own stories, the fun doesn’t have to stop when the show ends.

Really Big Pants Theatre perform at theatres, festivals, schools and community venues. For all upcoming dates or to book them for an event, visit or follow them on Twitter @reallybptheatre.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Review: The Machine Stops at Jacksons Lane

Dystopian fiction is starting to feel a little too close to reality lately – and although E.M. Forster’s 1909 short story The Machine Stops is set in a future version of our world, some of the themes – the politics of fear and mankind’s increasing dependence on technology among them – feel disturbingly current more than a century later.

Juliet Forster directs Neil Duffield’s faithful adaptation of the story, in which humanity has retreated underground, unable to continue living on the Earth’s surface. Direct contact between individuals has all but died out; everyone keeps to their own room, exchanging recycled ideas and knowledge with others via video chat and avoiding sunlight, travel or anything that might bring them into physical proximity with other people.

Photo credit: Ben Bentley

Life underground is supported by the Machine, a system invented by humans to supply all their wants and needs. But as time passes, it becomes less obvious who – or what – is really in charge… Only the rebellious Kuno (Rohan Nedd) can see what’s happening, but can he convince his mother Vashti (Ricky Butt) of the danger before the Machine stops?

Pilot Theatre’s chilling production takes place within designer Rhys Jarman’s futuristic metal cage, which develops a life of its own as Maria Gray and Adam Slynn crouch, climb and swing among its cables and wires. Movement director Philippa Vafadari has the two interacting with a mesmerising synchronicity and fluidity, which only falters when the Machine begins to fall into disrepair, its failing condition reflected perfectly – and rather poignantly – in the physical tics and stammering speech of the performers.

Ricky Butt is grim-faced and stubborn as Vashti, refusing to accept the truth about the Machine or the outside world, but also cutting a vulnerable figure as she shambles halfway across the world to visit the son she claims to have no time for (parental responsibilities – and presumably affection – are supposed to cease immediately after a child’s birth). In contrast, Rohan Nedd’s Kuno is full of youthful energy and passion, painting a picture through words and movement so that we can see and feel every second of his illicit trip to the Earth’s surface – and encouraging us, perhaps, to take another look at the surroundings we take for granted. Music by John Foxx and Benge helps complete this picture; the tense, repetitive strains underground contrasting with a crescendo of joyful choral melodies as Kuno explores the outside world.

Photo credit: Ben Bentley

Whether Forster really suspected his story would come true we’ll never know, but there’s no denying the play strikes a chord. In a world where we increasingly choose to communicate through technology instead of face to face, where do we draw the line between convenience and the risk of losing all human contact?

Worse, there’s no suggestion that any of this is the Machine’s doing; humans created the Machine and its rules, not the other way around, and then simply sat back (quite literally) and allowed it to take control and tell them what to believe – and what to fear. In this scenario, which hits a little too close to home, humankind brings about its own destruction… and that, perhaps, is the most terrifying idea of all.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉