Edinburgh company Licketyspit have built an excellent reputation for children’s theatre based on the success of shows like Molly Whuppie and Christmas Quangle Wangle, the former showing to almost 10,000 during its spring tour earlier this year. Their Christmas show for the Traverse, Green Whale, maintains this quality, combining imagination with a sense of adventure that is pitched precisely right to hold the target age group’s attention, with the action placed between colourful spectacle and a firm sense of narrative for older kids.
With four all-age cast members gliding between roles and an in-the-round set in the shape of their boat, the Big Betty, the production makes best use of the hall’s limited size. We join the action as three children stow away aboard the Betty with dreams of adventure and earning a fortune for their families. It’s a whaling ship whose bosun Mister Nin is obsessed with landing the fabled Green Whale. Also aboard is the imp-like Basque stowaway Baletxo.
It’s a real romp, with interactive song and dance numbers and evocative effects – storms and whale chases and so on – that capture a grand sense of wonder.
There are exceptional performances to go with Virginia Radcliffe’s crisp script. Johnny Austin, Sean Hay and Sarah Haworth are all excellent, so it feels almost unfair to single out Itxaso Moreno as Baletxo. However, she is dynamic and eye-catching throughout, much like this kind-hearted and emphatically successful maritime adventure.
Among the usual classic fairy tale adaptations that hit the stage during the season, it’s nice to see a theatre doing something a different. In this respect, you can’t get much more exciting than a Roald Dahl adaptation, which, done well, will ensure both a strong story and a wealth of vivid set-pieces. Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre’s blockbuster production of James and the Giant Peach is a winner from the start.
The story, in true Cinderella style, finds young James orphaned and left in the care of his two wicked aunts, played to full cartoon-garish effect by Allison McKenzie and Judith Williams. When James meets a mysterious stranger in his garden but drops the magical alligator tongues on a peach tree, a giant fruit grows, inside which lives a cast of eccentric insects.
The play is quick-paced and colourful, but it might be just a little too busy at times. With many characters onstage at once, their personalities occasionally get lost amid the commotion. It’s Dougal Lee who perhaps gets the best deal, as his blind old Earthworm soaks up all the visual gags.
The set pieces, however, are wonderful, especially the moment when a large inflatable peach falls on the crowd from above, or the gang’s attempts to catch a flock of seagulls to help with their voyage to New York. David Wood’s adaptation is certainly fun – although perhaps not as surreal as Dahl’s original – and visitors to this show will not leave feeling short-changed.
Having adapted Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid and Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant during past festive seasons, the Arches cast their attention to the Brothers Grimm’s version of Hansel and Gretel. As such, it’s a refreshingly old-fashioned piece, with the director of the play and the Arches itself Andy Arnold using the cavernous confines of his old subterranean venue to create a sense of gothic foreboding.
It’s a spooky play, but not excessively frightening. The well-realised and atmospheric locations – which are majestically realised given the tight confines of the stage – might strike fear into young hearts, but the lead characters are bold and fearless, and the adventure becomes less sinister when we’re with them.
Both played by female leads, Helen Mallon as the brash Hansel and Isobel Joss as the younger, more sensitive Gretel are a dynamic pairing. Their west coast of Scotland accents rarely grate, and instead make knowing references to Harry Potter and being “pure Hank Marvin starvin’ ” all the more amusing.
At under an hour it feels slightly short, yet the small space and cast are used to their best advantage. Revolving wooden scenes place us first in the children’s home, then in a gloomy forest, then in the witch’s gingerbread house, and Jeni Campbell’s set design deserves praise for its inventiveness. John Somerville’s live accordion soundtrack is also satisfyingly spooky, the liquorice chimney on top of a wonderfully evocative and magical show.
‘Green Whale’, Traverse
Theatre, Edinburgh. Tel +44 131 228 1404.
‘James and the Giant Peach’, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow. Tel +44 141 429 5561.
‘Hansel and Gretel’, Arches, Glasgow. Tel +44 870 240 7528