Theatre: East o' the Sun and West o' the Moon Northcott Theatre, Exeter

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Five years ago the Orchard, Britain's oldest touring company, appointed Bill Buffery as its director. Buffery had just produced the RSC's touring version of A Midsummer Night's Dream. It was a low-key production, the humour played down to concentrate on the fairy-tale fantasy. This carried over when Buffery wrote and produced the Orchard's Christmas show, Beauty and the Beast. The sympathetic Beast, with a bison's head, was barely a whisker away from Bottom in his ass's-head disguise. The show had the same atmosphere, with the emphasis on the story-telling, with no audience participation, no silly songs, just straight children's theatre, which enraptured the young audience by playing on their level.

Since then Buffery's fairy-tale Christmas shows have become a regular feature of the West Country winter season. The tales are less familiar: The Little Mermaid, Hansel and Gretel, The Firebird and, this year, East o' the Sun and West o' the Moon. This year also sees the Orchard's involvement with the French children's theatre L'Univers Jeune Public of Le Havre and collaboration with Georges Verin, a children's theatre producer of 25 years standing.

In France, children's theatre is not a once-a-year romp for TV stars to fill their Christmas stockings, but a year-round special art form with serious theatre practitioners who do nothing else. There are 60 purpose-built theatres for children in France against two in England (both in London).

Verin concentrates on the story. Previous Orchard shows have told the story well enough, but have scored with brilliant costumes, intriguing portable scenery and mood music by Tom Nordon. The new production shows Verin's influence in the subject matter. In a family of three the father speaks only English, the mother is French, but their small daughter is bi-lingual and translates their disagreements. They live in the frozen north and wander, like refugees, looking for food and shelter. Relief comes in the shape of a polar bear, who offers riches for the daughter, who then leaves the household, effectively leaving her parents speechless. All the cast are multi-lingual, and the play is a plea for greater communication through learning another language. Incidently, the polar bear isn't really an animal. It is our old friend the Frog Prince in another disguise.

East o' the Sun and West o' the Moon has a tinkling frozen set by Rachel Skelton, and scene-setting music by Tom Nordon. The cast double up as mountain trolls and form a melodeon band, without disturbing the serious element of wonder that pervades all Buffery's productions for children.

I saw the show at the Northcott Theatre in Exeter, in the company of an attentive, bewitched young audience. Buffery has brought a new approach to Christmas theatre by abandoning the traditional English style for one that is distinctly Continental.

n On tour to 8 Feb. Information: 01271 73356