Jessica Harris watches a puppetry spectacular at Birmingham Rep.
The strength of this show is in its puppetry. With its spectacular line-up of puppets, skilled puppeteering, and the chance for a few lucky kids to get up close and become part of the action, Dragons and Mythical Beasts is likely to be a memorable event for young children.
The theme is of heroes, and of how all of us can be heroic by being kind rather than cruel to others. The mythical beasts range from the terrifying to the fantastical. As children from the audience are invited to interact with them, choices emerge. A terrifying stone troll is first up, and a child is invited to smash it with a mallet to seize the diamond it is holding. Fortunately, there is no need for this, and the child is able to take the diamond by replacing it with a piece of coal. Later, a beautiful unicorn appears, its horn, of course, being a cure for sickness and pain. But if its horn is removed it will die. An alternative is found: use filings from its hoof to do the same job and leave the unicorn unharmed.
And so the parade of mythical beasts goes on, and the visual spectacle is striking. A blue fairy, the size of a butterfly, is magnified into the size of a small child. Its elfin ears and wings of gauze are full of movement and gesture, and the effect is remarkably lifelike. A giant dragon, its eyes, mouth, legs and tail all articulated, is truly scary as it breathes fire across the stage.
It’s a shame that the show is let down by a rather flimsy story-line, and its thin veneer of morality. A bit more complexity of plot and a bit more depth in terms of how we make moral choices would not go amiss with this audience. A little more nuance would also help: the performance by Dave, the hero trainer, is delivered at double the normal decibel level, and needs more variation of style. At times, vocal amplification and sound track are so loud that words are lost.
Involvement of children is patchy – some have the chance to move and speak on stage whilst others are simply told what to do, and have no agency of their own.
But the quality of puppetry is the enduring memory. As they left the Rep, children chattered about which puppet was their favourite. Let’s hope that both puppets and their wonderful puppeteers are put to use in productions beyond this one.
Dragons and Mythical Beasts is written and directed by Derek Bond and produced by Nicoll Entertainment. It runs at The Rep until Friday 2nd June. For further information visit Birmingham-rep.co.uk.
Pics – Nicoll Entertainment.