By Debbie Cannon
There’s the germ of something magical about The Rabbit and the Rose by Flyaway Productions at Sweet Grassmarket, but you can’t help feeling that not enough effort has gone into making any part of it develop.
It’s not all the company’s fault. Their black box performance space is very small, and this clearly restricts movement and possibilities. It’s difficult to see why, then, they attempt to squeeze a problematically large cast of actors into this space at the same time: at one point there were thirteen actors on stage, and the core of eight to nine actors occupied the space throughout. The audience are arranged around two sides of the performance area, and with this many people on stage at one time it was frequently difficult to see the two or three who were actually doing something significant to the plot at that moment. The cast do themselves no favours, repeatedly blocking each other and sitting with backs to the audience. Clearly conditions were not ideal, but this was a challenge they should have tried harder to overcome.
Even with such a substantial cast, some of the actors played multiple roles, producing a multitude of characters which were rarely well defined or developed. Unfortunately, the plot was also unnecessarily complicated. The story revolves around a journey undertaken by a boy and his faithful rabbit companion, and the idea that great art requires the experience of great pain. However, from early on this reviewer had difficulty following what was happening or why – my nine year old son was in the same boat, and the other children in the audience wore similarly puzzled expressions. Their lack of reaction to most of the performance was telling.
Most frustrating, however, was the fact that so much of the comedy was directed at grown-ups rather than children. References to having broken the fourth wall too early, to marriage as a reliable source of pain, and the conspiratorial nudge-nudge-wink-wink delivery of comments about alcohol and smoking provoked laughter from some of the grown-ups in the audience of around the same student age as the young cast, but they went over the kids’ heads. Worse, they felt like humour at the expense of the children in the audience. At one point, the company’s ‘writer’ character was introduced to the younger audience-members in disparaging style as producing work ‘mainly at your level’. It was intended as a comic line, but it reinforced the sense that the company have failed to appreciate how much skill and effort is required to produce good children’s theatre.
This is a shame, because there’s clearly talent and promise, here. This is the second year that Flyaway Theatre have brought a children’s play to the Fringe, so they apparently have a commitment to performance for children. And there are some lovely touches. The live guitar music used throughout the performance is beautiful, creating a gentle, welcoming environment. Light and sound-effects are well used. The script contains some moments of poetry, and the elements of the plot are all intriguing – it’s just too cluttered. In general the performances are not strong (in particular, it’d be nice to see the actors use some physicality in their characterisation) but there is a touching sincerity in the depiction of the rabbit. Towards the end, there were nice comic performances from the actors creating the griffins and the armed squirrel. There’s shadow-puppetry behind a sheet held up by the cast which could have been beautiful (but we couldn’t see it). Touches like the umbrella with its dots of colourful light are ideal for engaging and stimulating young imaginations.
Plenty of potential, then, but the company needs to prune both cast and script and reconsider their stagecraft and performances, and most importantly the needs of their audience. The Edinburgh Fringe offers new companies an ideal opportunity to view some of the top-quality children’s theatre on offer, and consider what makes it great. Let’s hope Flyaway Theatre do: it’d be great to see them come back and succeed.