Before I went, a friend was very off-putting about this show. "Oh God, it's so middle class," he sneered. "You know, actors wielding" - his voice dropped to a sepulchral wince - "bamboo canes." Well, they do use bamboo canes in a very funny jungle sequence, and Philip Pullman, whose story is the basis of the piece, could certainly be accused of being middle class. But none of that seemed to bother the young, socially diverse audience with whom I watched this enchanting adaptation of The Firework-Maker's Daughter by the physical troupe Told by an Idiot.
I know I am going to love it when I realise that the fire heading down the fuse to a firework is represented by a nervy woman in a red suit, whose tinselly-gloved hands make jumpy, flickering progress. Whenever the flame fizzles out, she keels over in a dead slump, or protests in mild disgust if she thinks the pyrotechnics are putrid. That's the kind of dotty, poetic slapstick in which Paul Hunter's impish production abounds.
Running at just two hours (including an interval), the piece, set in a fictional Thailand, dramatises a rite of passage. Ayesha Antoine is extremely winning as Lila, the young tomboy who wants more than anything to follow in her father's trade of firework-making. When her widowed parent blocks her aspirations, she defiantly sets off for the volcanic Mount Merapi to confront the Fire-Fiend and to seek the Royal Sulphur that is the essential ingredient of being a great pyrotechnician. What she does not know are the rituals necessary to protect her.
The show unfolds as two desperate consecutive rescue missions. In the first, Lila's best friend, Chulak (a likeable Mo Zainal), and Hamlet, a wonderfully lugubrious, Eric Morecambe-like white elephant (an excellent Malcolm Ridley), struggle to reach her before she enters the cave. In the second, Lila's only chance to save her father from execution is to win an international firework competition instituted by the King.
Vibrating to the magical Eastern sounds of Iain Johnstone's moody, versatile score, the production is a lovely mix of fairy-tale wonder and pantomime knockabout. It's full of delicacy (as when Lila's coolie hat suddenly becomes the far-off peak of Mt Merapi) and robust earthiness (as when two beanbag turds shoot out of the white-sheeted backside of the adorable, lovelorn elephant).
The show boasts wittily pitched adventure (playing with perspective so that, for example, when Lila crawls over the stage, she seems to be labouring up a sheer rock-face) and an unforced, lightly registered message (Royal Sulphur, it turns out, isn't a physical substance but the wisdom that comes only through suffering).
I have one quibble. In the very amusing final contest with German and US firework-makers, the rival efforts are represented through terrific theatrical equivalents - a fusillade of glittering Frisbees, say, or the thrash of a weird cat-o'-nine-tails with balls on the ends. Lila wins with a spectacular but literal display, when you feel that it would be more in keeping with the logic of the show to have her top their theatricality.
"Can we come again?" I heard one boy plead on the way out.
To 22 January (0870 050 0511)
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