Turkish delight for Christmas night

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The Independent Culture
THE ART of acting meets its greatest challenge when confronted by an audience of children. It has to be a special deal. The show has to be constructed with children in mind, and performed with solemn intent. It was reported that an invited audience of Plymouth children ran amok recently when the RSC thought they might be captured by the villainy and heroics of The Merchant of Venice.

Fortunately, children's theatre has its own practitioners. Bill Buffery's Orchard Theatre production of The Cinder Girl enraptured an audience of Somerset schoolchildren at the Brewhouse in Taunton for two hours. Not a rustle, no shouting, no scrambling on the floor after a lost tooth, just appreciative giggles, and sighs of contentment. Buffery writes, directs and acts, and knows how to connect.

The Cinder Girl, set in Arabian Nights country (well, Istanbul), is dazzling to watch. It has a talking (and flying) camel, a recipe for making Turkish Delight, and a princess who talks utter nonsense and makes it sound reasonable.

This is all done with mime and imagination, and a touch of Goonish humour. It is clear that mimed slapstick is just as effective as splattering everyone with shaving foam. Children will accept that flour and eggs and jelly is being applied in mime, as effectively as in reality. Transformations can be accepted before your very eyes, without blackouts, drum rolls, flash tape and smoke. If the children are captured by the story, they use their compensating imagination.

Like all Buffery's productions, The Cinder Girl is presented on the level. No kidding, this is real. The children, it seemed, appreciated the absence of patronage. The show proceeds smoothly with bags of charm and simple theatrical effects. An undoubted triumph for Rachel Thorne's po-faced lead, Gill Nathanson, Buffery, Justin McCarron, and Melanie Baxter-Jones, who, working as a team, weave a spell of pure wonder.

Theatre Alibi are another group with expertise in the same field. In the adult theatre world they produce original and devised performances, a technique that works well for children. The Night Before Christmas is three stories (by Dan Jamieson), performed by Emma Rice and Henry Hawkes, and directed by Nikki Sved, which filled Dartington's Barn Theatre.

The performers use an informal approach, establishing a rapport before the show starts, and the stories themselves feature beguiling puppets, which are just lifted around, without any attempt to imitate real life, back-screen projection, and original instruments made by Dave Sawyer (hand chimes, and a zither like an autoharp), plus thrilling wordless singing.

Allen Saddler

`The Cinder Girl' and `The Night Before Christmas' are touring the West Country before Christmas. For details: Orchard 01271-371475, Alibi 01392- 217315