>JEMIMA PUDDLE-DUCK & HER FRIENDS by Unicorn Theatre

>reviewed by matthew lyon

>date: 11 jun 2000
>time: 8pm
>venue: world trade centre auditorium
>rating: ***1/2

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

                           
>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.
 

>>>>>VICTOR VICTORIANA

Unicorn Theatre's original mission statement, dating illustriously from 1947, was that 'the best of theatre for children should be judged on the same high standards of writing, directing, acting and design as the best of adult theatre'. The little devil on my shoulder had a field day when it read this in the programme, because it gave me the ammunition to totally slag off that worthy of worthies, a play for children. It was soon to be disappointed, however, as the little angel on the other side righteously pointed out that there was nothing to criticize in the execution of this production.

The acting was excellent. The cast, playing multiple roles each, left even the slowest child in the audience in no doubt as to which characters they were currently playing, and they were as close to animals as you can get without selling your body to genetics researchers. They had bucket-loads of energy and showed versatility in playing their own music to accompany the songs.

>>'Not even this most vibrant performance could prevent the kids in the audience from talking, fidgeting and generally losing interest in the slower sections.'

The set was equally strong. Decked out in a colour scheme somewhere between Disney and the Brothers Grimm, it was a cross between a schoolroom, a farmyard and a Victorian kitchen. It managed to combine a lot of open space and dozens of places to hide and play about with and consequently the director, Tony Graham had an easy task, which he nonetheless did extremely well.

Elements of quality were everywhere. Even the programme was stuffed with activities: simple sheet music, recipes, word puzzles. Unfortunately, the deadline for the competition entries had already expired by the time the production tour reached Singapore, but I do complain for the sake of complaining. No, the only fault of the production lies beyond Unicorn Theatre's immediate control: the script. And it would be wrong here to lay the blame on Adrian Mitchell's adaptation, which is faithful and authentic-sounding.

The problem here is good old Beatrix herself. I must confess that even as a small child I had never seen any attraction in her books. I had a full set, of course, beautifully bound and slightly musty-smelling (what wannabe middle-class family didn't?) but these stories, which appeared to strike my nostalgic parents as heart-warming, struck me only as deadly dull. I have always suspected that I was in a very small and cynical minority in holding such a view so I decided to do a straw poll on the subject. My results were, of course, statistically meaningless, but indicated that people generally agree with me that the books are overrated, and parents of young children seem particularly unimpressed by them. They may well have made pretty wallpaper for kids at the turn of the last century, but your modern youngster has more things to do than crawl up a chimney or learn to recite epic verse and nowadays they're just not interesting enough to bother with.

'Ah, but they're traditional,' I only just fail to hear you cry, 'they've got things like Values and Morals.' Well, I'm not too sure about that. As with all fairy stories, if you think about them rationally, they can be pretty horrific - eating unborn babies and mutilation both make appearances here. What the stories do have is a lot of repetition and long breaks between the action. Not even the most vibrant performance - and Unicorn Theatre certainly gave this - could prevent the kids in the audience from talking, fidgeting and generally losing interest in the slower sections. Beatrix Potter may be the sanitized and recognizable face of childhood for adults, but when it comes to kids, Harry Potter rules the roost.

And by the way, 8:00pm is a strange time to begin a play aimed at four- to six-year-olds.