Review: Once Upon a Snowflake at Chelsea Theatre

Given that we had our first (very brief) snow of winter last week, the timing of Paper Balloon’s alternative Christmas show Once Upon a Snowflake seems particularly appropriate. Combining live music, shadow puppetry and storytelling, Once Upon a Snowflake introduces us to three spriteologists, who begin by smugly informing us (in song, no less) that there’s nothing they don’t know about sprites. But when a young girl disappears after an encounter with a mischievous winter sprite, they’re forced to enlist the audience’s help in solving the mystery.

Photo credit: Paper Balloons

The show has plenty to delight audiences of all ages: catchy songs, colourful costumes, plenty of witty references to popular stories, and – naturally – a bit of audience participation (the section in which the cast improvise a story and song with suggestions and props supplied by their young audience is a highlight, if only to see how they manage to turn a shoe and an umbrella into a footballing dinosaur). As in all the best family shows, the humour is carefully pitched so it can be enjoyed by adults and kids alike, and there’s even an educational element: while we may not all believe in winter sprites, there’s still a lot to learn for all ages, whether it’s that polar bears don’t live in Antarctica, or that sometimes even so-called experts get things wrong.

But what makes this production really stand out from your typical seasonal family show is the skilful use of light and shadow puppetry, which are put to magical effect throughout the show, particularly when telling us about the missing Liza; it proves as fascinating for the grown-ups as it is for the children to watch her dream-like world come alive. The shadow work is incorporated seamlessly into spirited performances from Alex Kanefsky and Dorie Kinnear who, as well as spriteologists, also play at various points Liza, her parents, her neighbour and even the chatty sprite she discovers in her pocket one day, all while interacting with their (at times unpredictable) audience.

The two also have excellent support from Joseph Hardy, who not only plays an impressive number of musical instruments (frequently all at once, with the aid of a loop pedal) but also sings and provides wonderfully creative and entertaining sound effects for the story. Darren Clark’s music – like the rest of the production, which was originally directed by Maria Litvinova – has a very Russian folk feel to it, all of which adds to the show’s unique character and style.

Photo credit: Paper Balloons

Once Upon a Snowflake is charming, quirky and different, sidestepping the usual panto conventions but still delivering a heartwarming Christmassy message about acceptance and friendship. Perhaps the story might go a little over the heads of some younger children – but it’s beautifully presented, and the show has more than enough joyous energy to keep most little ones spellbound regardless.

Once Upon a Snowflake is at Chelsea Theatre until 22nd December.

Review: Odd Man Out at The Hope Theatre

The two shows that make up Odd Man Out – Dominic Grace’s Rabbitskin and Lesley Ross’ Diary of a Welshcake – weren’t written to be performed together. Nor are they similar in plot, character or even performance style. But what unites these powerful monologues is the themes of love, loss and isolation explored by their two protagonists: Joe, a sensitive book lover struggling to live up to the expectations of his father and four older brothers; and Ralph, a gay Welshman on a journey of self-discovery and unexpected romance in Hong Kong.

The first character to take the stage is Rabbitskin‘s Joe, who quickly wins our hearts with his shy smile, childlike innocence and obvious affection for both his family and his favourite books. His is a story that can only be told by dipping into others, and Grace’s script skilfully weaves episodes from Joe’s life together with the yarns spun by his father. Like both Joe and his dad, Luke Adamson proves himself a masterful and thoroughly engaging storyteller, who slips effortlessly between characters – one moment a wide-eyed seven-year-old Joe, the next his Irish father telling the legendary tale of Cu Chulainn, the next his bullying brother Cal. He even manages to make something as mundane as the washing up sound utterly magical.

Photo credit: Luke Adamson

But stories will only protect you from real life for so long – and as sympathetic as Joe undoubtedly is, there’s a darker side to this character that refuses to stay hidden behind his defensive wall of fantasy. As the story begins to come together, and Joe’s placid demeanour cracks with increasing frequency, we know something is coming… yet the end of the story, when we arrive there, still shocks with its sudden brutality.

Gregory Ashton’s Ralph – also known as Tom – in Diary of a Welshcake is a somewhat different character; while still very likeable (and not just because he begins by handing out food) he doesn’t have Joe’s innocence, or feel quite so much a victim of his circumstances – perhaps because he ultimately acknowledges his own guilt over how the story of his Hong Kong adventure ends. Despite this, his is a much more openly comic tale, with a lot of the humour stemming from cultural differences, and particularly the absolute inability of characters from outside the UK to understand the difference between England and Wales.

Photo credit: Gregory Ashton

These other characters – male and female – allow Ashton to demonstrate his versatility as a performer; Ralph’s “predominantly heterosexual” American flatmate Matthew is a particular highlight, and there’s even a bit of (unfortunately inaccurate) Chinese in there at one point. Ashton’s been performing the show for over ten years, and it shows; his delivery falls somewhere between stand-up and theatre, so much so that the show begins to feel like it could actually be a true autobiographical account. The easy rapport that quickly develops between actor and audience is taken full advantage of later in the show as we’re invited to help recreate a dream of Ralph’s, a bizarre but very funny moment that deliberately steers us off course in the build-up to a shocking revelation.

Each of these stories could – and does – stand alone as a skilful portrayal of a man who doesn’t quite know who he is or where he belongs. Put together, they make for an evening that’s simultaneously laugh-out-loud funny and quietly heartbreaking, featuring two engrossing solo performances. If nothing else, come for the free food; you won’t regret it.

Odd Man Out is at The Hope Theatre until 12th August.

Interview: Danyah Miller, Why The Whales Came

“I love how this story makes us think about others, about how we view difference and how sometimes we misjudge when we’re unsure or afraid,” says Danyah Miller, award-winning performer and storyteller, of Michael Morpurgo’s Why the Whales Came. “I would hope that the audience take away a sense of hope and joy and perhaps the feeling that one person can make a huge difference.”

Why the Whales Came sees Danyah again teaming up with director Dani Parr and designer Kate Bunce, following the success of their collaboration on I Believe in Unicorns – also by Michael Morpurgo. “I love working on Michael’s stories because they’re multi-layered and really gripping tales, based in truth,” she explains. “It is often said that he doesn’t patronise children in anyway and takes them, and us, to dark places and back again. I like that. I find his stories full of surprises, sadness, hope, joy. Above all, they’re about ordinary folk often doing extraordinary things during extraordinary times.”

Photo credit: Helen Murray
Photo credit: Helen Murray

Their admiration is mutual; Michael Morpurgo describes Danyah as a “storytelling phenomenon”. What inspired her to take up performing as a career? “As long as I can remember I wanted to be a performer and I certainly ‘entertained’ my way through childhood! I have always been very chatty and there’s nothing I like more than spinning a good tale. How I became a storyteller is a long story…

“I suspect that the difference between being an actor and being a storyteller is a very fine line. As a storyteller we ‘hold’ a central point, as ourselves, and from there paint the world of the story, become characters, weave in and out of landscapes and people, but we always come back to the centre, as ourselves. As an actor we become another character and remain in that role (although of course sometimes actors are asked to multi-role too). Perhaps it’s possible to be both, I suspect that the best in our profession are both actor and storyteller. Stories are everywhere, aren’t they? We are storytelling beings and it’s what makes us human…”

Why the Whales Came is the story of Gracie and Daniel, who’ve been forbidden to go near the mysterious and seemingly dangerous Birdman – but then they find a message in the sand that suggests all is not as it seems. When they get stranded on the Birdman’s tiny island, the two friends begin to unravel his secrets…

Although it’s based on a children’s book, Danyah believes the show has something for everyone: “This is definitely not a show just for children – it is a ‘family’ show in the widest possible sense. We have people of all ages from 7 to 107 enjoying the show whether or not they have children with them. Good stories, good theatre can appeal across the ages and we hope that our show does this.

“I enjoy sharing the show with children who’ve never been to a theatre before or experienced any kind of live show – as an audience they are really responsive and truthful and often give me insightful feedback. I also really enjoy it when families of children, parents and grandparents come to see the show and all of them have been moved by the show in different ways.”

Photo credit: Helen Murray
Photo credit: Helen Murray

As a solo performer, Danyah may be the only person on stage, but she’s far from lonely. “I really like performing solo, although I feel as if I have a collaborator when I perform on the set, in the ‘world’ that the creative team have produced… the set, projection, lighting and sound,” she says. “I also like to be able to see the audience, we have the lights set so I can do this – so I’m not alone. I think of what I do as a delicious triangle between the story, myself and the audience – every show is different because of this, and I’m never lonely. I do have to make sure that I’m always fit and ready though, as it’s down to me being on top form for every show!”

Why the Whales Came is at Ovalhouse until 31st December, with other one-off performances scheduled for early 2017.

Interview: Michael Kossew, Tellit Festival

This Sunday sees the launch of Tellit, the UK’s first ever festival of true-life storytelling. It’s the brainchild of Michael Kossew, and will feature a week of shows across London including spoken word, theatre, comedy and movement, workshops and open mic events.

“I love listening to people’s stories and being transported into their lives for an hour or even a few minutes, and wanted to share my favourites with as many people as possible,” explains Michael. “There are loads of storytelling festivals but, in this country, no festival had ever focused solely on true-life storytelling and I wanted to change that.

“Then I had to make a decision about whether to focus on truth or storytelling. I chose truth as it allows artists more freedom to create performances in whatever style they feel comfortable performing and can allow the festival to grow in so many interesting ways. 

“Once I started telling people my vision, I ended up putting a great team together to help me curate the festival. Kate Walton, a storyteller I’d met at my storytelling nights, Jacob Wagen, an old friend and theatre producer and Tim, an audience member who loves stories. We started working together and this festival has grown to what it is through our collective visions.”

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Michael runs true storytelling events around London and at festivals, and wanted to combine his two passions into something greater. “Sharing stories goes back thousands of years. It’s not something I’ve created. But it’s something that, in this world driven by shorter and shorter forms of communication and concentration spans, is being lost and I want to help bring it back.

“We’re all natural born storytellers and we have an innate ability to tell amazing stories to each other. We all have at least one story from our own life that we love telling our friends. It could be one that you’ve told a million times because it always makes people laugh or cry or reminisce about lost youth or loved ones and, being this captivating, makes you an artist. We are all artists and telling stories is one of the easiest ways to unlock this creativity inside you because you already have the tools, the material, the experience of life to be able to tell your own stories.”

The packed programme includes Tellit Poeticallya night of autobiographical poetical storytelling; a clowning double bill from Holli Dillon and Charmaine Wombwell; and a lyrical rapping style of storytelling in Paul Cree’s Bedsit Show. The Survivors Collective are creating an empowering night of poetry speaking as survivors of childhood sexual abuse, and Hikayenta, a group of Syrian refugees, create poetry and music from their own stories.

“We’ve made sure that all our shows are of an incredibly high standard for this year, but I would say that The Quest is a major highlight,” says Michael. “I would love to, one day, gather together in one room the greatest storytellers from around the world and hear tales from their own lives –  giving a wonderful insight into the lives of people on this planet. This year The Quest gathers together storytellers from major true-life storytelling clubs around the country for the final event of Tellit. It’s going to be a great celebration of stories at Hoxton Hall, one of the most beautiful venues of the festival, on the 22nd October.

“The ultimate aim of The Quest is to find stories from around the UK and eventually the world, bring those storytellers together to celebrate the stories that we tell. We want to inspire people to share their stories, whether they’re grand adventures or a beautiful slice of their lives. We’re not aiming to find the ‘best’, because all stories are beautiful in their own way, but we want to find a snapshot of a place and time reflected in the stories we tell each other and we’d love for people to think of their life events in terms of a story, to frame it, to own it and to tell it.”

Michael wants people to feel inspired to share their own stories and experiences. “We’d love for them to realise that they do have a story to tell, and I hope audiences will leave feeling enriched by the stories they’ve been told as well as their own memories that the stories re-ignited. Maybe some will start their own storytelling night, or club or circle and come and join The Quest next year. 

“I think people will take away many lessons from the stories they’ve heard as well. Stories are great teachers and they will stay in your mind long after the festival is over, and I hope they continue to be passed on from teller to listener to teller.”

And what about people who feel they have a story, but are worried nobody will be interested in hearing it? “I’ve found this to be the single biggest thing that holds people back from sharing their stories. My advice would be to listen to other people’s stories and see what draws you in. You’ll often find it’s the little things, like the way someone folds their clothes, or makes a cup of tea or relates to a parent and it’s these shared experiences that are often the most captivating. The story that you think isn’t interesting will trigger more memories and thoughts in your listener than you could ever imagine, and they will truly be interested in what you have to say. The trick to making people listen, is belief and presence. You have to believe that what you’re saying is interesting and, rather than simply remembering what happened, you have to re-live the experience as you’re telling it. 

“Finally – I would say just get on stage and share it. It gets easier every time and the audiences or listeners you tell your story to are so supportive, free of judgement and want to hear a great story. You’ll feed off this, relax, thoroughly enjoy it and will be desperate to do it again.”

Check out the programme for Tellit (16th-22nd October) at tellitfestival.com.