[A thing made-with-joy]
There are certain creatures in our theatre scene that operate under long periods of dormancy. You know the types – they tiptoe in and out of other people’s processes, keeping themselves on a low simmer. You know they are there – designing shows, writing the odd monologue, sometimes co-directing, part of the indelible infrastructure of our sprawling performance network, but often as not, they scuttle away from the light. There are exceptions. See: Matt Baker in next week’s Hungover, Josephine Stewart-Tewhiu in last year’s The Black.
It is with no small amount of anticipation, then, that Little Child of Miracle presses not one, but two hibernating talents into our eager, sweating hands. I have never before seen Christopher Stratton on stage. I have heard rumour of Ruby Reihana-Wilson’s exceptional dance skills, but have never held this tall talk to account. Its cast-list also boasts a line-up of the fearless and the hilarious. I am excited.
Stratton, as concept designer, is clear about his own trepidation in putting on the show. The programme is littered with self-deprecation and humility: this will be a “weird little show,” the result of a “strange process” to make an “odd little story” come to life. It is difficult to separate the seldom-seen Stratton with the young boy of the tale, hiding from us, being with us, as he shrouds his face with a PVC skirt, and shows us the ‘space’ in which our/his journey will play out. He is to no small degree charming as the protagonist. There is something tender and self-conscious about his relationship to performing at all: the boredom of running out of things to do, the limits of the room we are in, the hilarious poverty of ‘Somewhere Over A Rainbow’ played nervously for us from a child’s toy. We love him, especially when he does not much at all.
The ‘little’-ness of the story is in its sense of pantomime. Every member of the cast feels under the age of nine – from Natalie Clark’s melodramatic leotard-clad dance sequences to the charming failures of Virginia Frankovich’s rigid and maternal furry moon. They are all on a spectrum from precocious to modest. If Clark is the teacher’s pet (cast in three roles), then Priya Sami is the teacher they had to include, because her lush singing was just too beautiful to leave out of the show. (See: my Form 2 show at Glen Eden Intermediate). Yvette Parsons is all cheekbones; stoic and sincere as both world-bearer and moth, and Ruby’s angular doomsday fish cameo does not disappoint. The effect is an awkward silent disco of humans, being humans, in costumes, but their job is to tell a story. They don’t always manage that, but they sure are present, and delightful.
The driving narrative, we are told, is the boy adopted by a moon, but on a journey to find his true origins. Our understanding of this is mainly hindered by the persistent distortion of the booming voiceover – only audible in poetic snippets. I’m not necessarily worried that I won’t follow, only that I am left longing for live sound – and it is a delicious relief when Priya Sami descends a ladder to sing a vocally gymnastic and sparklingly sincere rendition of “Out Here On My Own.” Sound condition becomes increasingly difficult during a moth/boy scene. When the moth says “I used my feelers to find your story,” I find it resonates: I am doing much the same, flying blindly through this theatre, hoping to bump into key moments along the way. I don’t mind much. There are some shiny things, while I’m here:
The skeleton of a princess on a funeral pyre, the dance party that follows (so satisfying seeing Stratton and Clark bounce in unison), the laboured entrances and exits of giant moons and chained stars, Yvette’s surly air guitar, the modernist fish trio – there is no shortage of magic and surprise. Stratton’s universe is one of plenitude.
In fact, so much happens, that when I finally see our tiara-ed hero sitting at the foot of the lavish Sami, I am relieved – partly for the shimmery singing – but also because I can actually see Stratton again. I realise I have missed the simplicity and spaciousness his opening character was afforded. I could have seen less happen, and been satisfied to hold hands with this ‘little boy’ for longer.
As I bound out of the theatre to the auto-tuned glory of Cher, I can hardly tell you the story of what I just saw. But I can’t help feeling this troupe of children-as-characters wouldn’t care. What stays with me, rather, is the feeling of being inside this pantomime – the earnestness of waiting-for-your-turn in the dark, the quick inhalation before you walk on stage, the glory of seeing your mum in the front row. It feels like standing in the wings of a talent quest, and this, to me, is the beautifully crappy truth of telling stories in the theatre at all. Stratton and Clark have put together an opportunity to let the act of construction happen before your eyes and this is what ratifies its “weird”ness amongst the regular theatre set. When your moon trips over a turtle, and your star forgets she is chained to the ceiling and tries to exit stage right. These are the big plastic diamonds at the heart of the show. They are all too rare, these things made with the joy to-be-made – at once glittering, absurd, subtle and hopeful. I am grateful for this glimpse.
Little Child of Miracle plays at The Basement until 1 April. Details see The Basement.