>PRUDENTIAL CHILDREN FIRST! by Act 3

>reviewed by matthew lyon

>date: 12 mar 2000
>time: 2pm
>venue: singapore arts museum and sph auditorium
>rating: ****

>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.
 

>>>>>THE STORY BOX

2 out of 5 ain't bad. No, don't worry, that's not the star-rating grade I'm giving Act 3's PRUDENTIAL CHILDREN FIRST! Theatre Festival of Children; it's just that - over-worked teacher that I am - I only had time to attend 2 out of the festival's 5 shows. And from the standard of the two I saw, I can only surmise that I missed out big time on the others.

Tam Tam Theatre hails from my own weather-blighted homeland, England; but let this not be cause for bias. It specializes in multi-cultural theatre and traditional storytelling for very young children, and thus we were presented with the African tale of Ananse - a spider, a man, and a trickster - who makes a wager with the Sky God to win a box containing all the world's stories. Now, in adult terms, Ananse is not much of a trickster and the ruses he employs to capture the Leopard-With-The-Terrible-Teeth and the Hornets-Who-Sting-Like-Fire (both prerequisites of his wager) wouldn't get him very far in the world of international espionage. But then this is the world of children, so when Ananse suggests to the leopard that instead of eating him they should play a game together where they bind each other's legs and that he, Ananse, should go first, the 5 year olds in the audience are still able to laugh with glee at the leopard's infantile gullibility.

The children got a lot from the stories. Despite not being particularly funny, and despite not having that elusive "magical" quality which is the holy grail of children's theatre, the show was fascinating and proved that the old ways work best. With voice and a little music, stories were narrated and the kids' attention captured. These traditional elements were joined by what must have seemed much more unusual - the African setting, strange names and occasional foreign-language chanting. I suspect the young audience may have gone home wondering what it was all about, but the important thing is, it certainly got them thinking. As for the oldies, there was the satisfaction of seeing a job well-done, a tale well-told and kids well-entertained.

The production was billed as containing "fascinating and unusual puppetry". This is perhaps a little wide of the mark. I'm not denying that Marleen Venmeulen manipulated her puppets with skill, it's just that they weren't very unusual. Not did they need to be, as Venmeulen's engaging voice and graceful economy of movement gave them as much life as they required - any pyrotechnics would have distracted. Indeed, Thierry Lawson, the second storyteller, didn't use props at all but his energy and physicality rendered them unnecessary as he explained why the African bush-rat is the strongest thing in the world.

>>'The cast were on top form with their over-acting pitched so that it was just enough for the kids and not too much for the adults; it left both in stitches.'

The other show I saw, 'Macbeth' by Dufflebag Theatre, was a different cup of tea entirely. Now, put 'Macbeth' on the front of a programme, and it starts to sound terribly serious. That is, until you see the picture in the programme which shows a rubber chicken, a red nose, a curly clown wig and a pirate's hat. Then it doesn't look serious anymore; it just looks worrying.

I should point out at this juncture how much I hate audience participation in theatre. It makes me want to bleed from the ears and suck my eyes into the spongy tissue of my brain. Therefore, in fairness to the company, I had decided not to review this production and instead pass the honours over to fellow Inkpot writer, Kenneth Kwok (who loves this sort of thing). Ironically, however, he got pulled up on stage and so had a unique but incomplete view of the action. Writing duties returned to me.

Time to stop being so mean. It was very very good. I hate audience participation because, in my experience, it embarrasses, pokes fun at and confuses the hapless participant, contrasting their discomfort with the supposed composure and wit of the paid performer. None of that was the case here. The cast was supportive and encouraging and the young starlets they summoned to the stage soon developed enough confidence to play the audience for well-deserved laughs of their own.

This refreshing approach was coupled by a script that refused to treat Shakespeare as the great unapproachable bard and firmly took all the piss out of his tragic "Scottish play". Yet as well as having Macbeth eating that traditional Scottish repast, the Big Mac, and despite having Lady Macbeth wrapped in paisley, which the Scottish apparently invented before tartan, the play remained essentially true to the basics of the play's original plot. I'm not suggesting that the audience of 7 to 12 year olds are now going to go home and read 'Hamlet' but nonetheless, this was a hilarious and accessible introduction to Shakespeare.

The cast were on top form with their over-acting pitched so that it was just enough for the kids and not too much for the adults; it left both in stitches. But the star of the show? Well, I'd like to say it was Kenneth who performed with wonderful woodenness in his role as a tree but I'm afraid the Oscar goes to the boy who was called on stage to play Macbeth himself, and who did it with enthusiasm to spare.

This is the first theatre festival for children ever to hit these diminutive shores, and Act 3 must be applauded for the having the guts to do it. Not only the guts but the good judgement for the plays invited have been well-received and seem to be total - or near - sell-outs. Despite the variety on offer, Act 3's artistic director, Ruby Lim-Yang, reckons she's started small. I look forward to even bigger things next year.