As children’s theatre goes, Superjohn by Firehouse Creative Productions at the Pleasance Courtyard is a little bit out of the ordinary. It has bucket-loads of charm, audience participation, evocative music, engaging comedy and superheroes – all staples of kids’ drama. What it also has, however, is a sense of jeopardy and an underlying awareness of the fragility of human life.
The play was developed in collaboration with doctors and people with experience of childhood cancer, and explores how imagination can be used to help cope with illness, most especially for children dealing with the trauma of hospital and disruption to their health and normal family life. The baseline story is of a little boy called John, receiving treatment in hospital, and his big sister Star, who is given the responsibility of becoming his bone marrow donor. Running alongside this is a fantasy plot in which John and Star and their friend Dogby try to draw on super-powers to obtain the orb of invincibility and restore John to health and normality.
This is an upbeat, and energetic show, emphatically played for children and from a child’s point of view. It doesn’t linger on John’s illness, and the truth that none of us ever can, in fact, be invincible is not forced on the audience. It’s unmistakably there, if you look for it – in the strained face of John’s mum, for example. But this is a multi-layered play and different age-groups will take what they want from it. The only danger here is that some of the action will go over the heads of younger audience-members – my nine year old confessed to being unsure what it was about at times. However, there are plenty of moments of fun and comedy to keep children entertained, and the plot is in fact a real strength of the play, tight and well structured, with its sense of tension (though it’s never frightening) maintained throughout. As my son commented, you weren’t really sure how it would end.
The cast are excellent, embodying their characters with truthfulness and fun. Barra Collins as John, Grace Hopkins as Star, and David Ajao as Dogby capture the physicality and idiosyncrasies of children brilliantly in their performances (David Ajao is also a heart-warming doctor). Lucy Grattan gives a powerhouse performance in her three roles: she is still and strong while teetering on the brink of emotional breakdown as mum, elegantly evil as Haema, and jolly and reliable as Betty the nurse. All four manage the movement of props around the otherwise bare black space beautifully.
The props themselves are simple but ingenious. Best of all is the ‘doorway’ on wheels, at first adorned with blue hospital curtains which turn to silver for a game show sequence when the frame is revolved. Later the bare frame is light-studded to form the magical doorway between the hospital and John’s fantasy world. Sound and lighting are used strikingly and cleverly throughout, and there’s lovely use of luminous pens to draw motifs on the hospital set. It’s visually beautiful, and spectacle and sound combine to produce something really captivating for the audience.
While Pleasance Two is a spacious, comfortable theatre, noise from outside could be heard at several points during the performance, which was unfortunate.
This is an interesting, intelligent, creative play, which will entertain and amuse its younger audience-members, while stimulating their imaginations. And as for the adults? I defy you not to be moved.