Enduring work is still delighting youngsters
Martha, a muchloved play for children aged four years old and over, is one of the most successful productions of the great Scottish children’s theatre company Catherine Wheels. The work of Andy Manley, Gill Robertson (who directs the show) and Annie Wood, it was first staged in 1999. This revival, which stars the excellent Isabelle Joss as the lonely and cantankerous Mrs Donald (aka Martha), whose heart is melted by a gregarious goose, is testament to its enduring charm.
We first meet Martha as she bustles around designer Karen Tennent’s ingenious set (a little wooden house on a shingle beach from which emerges the paraphernalia of the solitary woman’s life, including menacing skull and crossbones flags). Whether Martha is widowed or separated we don’t know, but one thing is certain, she prefers to keep people (and geese) at arm’s length.
However, having cast Goose (who is represented by a delightful puppet on wheels) out into a storm, Martha finds the poor creature shivering and sneezing on her doorstep the next morning. Finally taking the bird in, the reclusive Martha inadvertently begins a friendship that will effect in her a Scrooge-like transformation.
This touching tale is told by way of lovely physical comedy, an accomplished theatre of objects and smart, humorous puppetry. Robertson’s production exhibits a brilliant understanding of what makes young children laugh; not least in the antics of the playful Goose, who (thanks to Chris Alexander’s superb, energetic manipulation) pops up where Martha least expects him and runs amok hilariously when he’s left alone in the house.
Nursery school and early primary aged children are among the most demanding of theatre audiences. Many a production has succumbed to the bored chair flipping and general restlessness of unimpressed junior patrons.
It speaks volumes about this little play that, almost 20 years since its premiere, it is delighting another generation of very young theatregoers.
Tipping the Hat
Oran Mor, Glasgow, Four stars Transferring to Traverse, Edinburgh, October 2-6 and Haddo Festival, Aberdeen, October 13
The hat being tipped in this richly enjoyable piece from the lunchtime theatre A Play, a Pie and a Pint is that of actor, director and writer extraordinaire
John Bett. The tipees, if you will, are the double act of the English music hall Michael Flanders and Donald Swann.
The lyrical satirists (who enjoyed particular acclaim in the 1950s and 60s, and were parodied wonderfully earlier this century by TV comedians Armstrong and Miller) are played by the unlikely, but superb, Scottish duo of John Jack (Flanders) and, at the piano, Gordon Cree (Swann).
Bett (who also directs the show) has written, not a drama, but a musical revue laced with narrated biography, political history and gentle satire. Jack and Cree alternate splendidly between performing the songs of the famous double act and, in their own, droll, Caledonian personas, regaling us with interesting stories from the lives and times of Flanders and Swann.
The show alights upon the much loved (and quietly angry) song about the romantically named railway stations that were closed by the infamous, Conservative chairman of British Railways, Richard “The Axe” Beeching, in the 1960s. From there it isn’t far to Flanders and Swann’s association with Tony Benn, and their strongly, if discreetly, held socialist convictions.
Jack and Cree, who sing the numbers splendidly, have a tremendous grasp of the songs’ satire (which one might consider a clenched fist in a velvet glove). They also build their own enjoyable version of Flanders and Swann’s rapport with their audience.
Which is not to say that the production is perfect. It begins with three versions of the memorably silly ditty The Gnu Song, which is, surely, at least one large, dark antelope too many. Nonetheless, there is no doubting that this is a beautifully performed, wittily pleasurable piece of nostalgic entertainment.
Isabelle Joss and Goose in Martha. Photo: Brian Hartley