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The Unicorn Theatre opened its doors nearly a year ago, and on the evidence of its two most recent shows, The Mouse Queen and Leonardo, is living up to its aspirations to produce and host inspiring theatre for children.
The Mouse Queen (here throughout November, and at Hampstead Theatre throughout December) is a witty retelling of an Aesop fable, aimed at children aged five and over. A mouse called Tilly finds herself at the sharp end of the lion king’s attentions, but escapes when he is distracted by the discovery that he is not the only monarch in the world. Both mouse and lion head off to the big city and, many misadventures later, the mouse is able to rescue the lion from a tricky predicament, in return for which he promises to revise his style of ruling and become nice.
The storyline is over-elaborate (my five-year-old companion was pretty hazy about what was going on), but the appeal of Steve Tiplady’s Little Angel Theatre production is the attractive staging. Actors share the stage with rod puppets, eloquently operated (particularly a demonstrative Italian chef) and this, together with clever use of shadow play, makes the piece visually intriguing. The musical numbers, sung and accompanied live by the actors, are vivid and often very witty. The performances are strong, particularly that of Leonard the Lion, and there is a sophisticated level of invention that is most engaging.
For older children, Leonardo is – appropriately, given its subject – based on a simple but ingenious idea. Two actors tell the story of Leonardo da Vinci, while slowly assembling a large wooden contraption that looks very like one of his inventions. Or rather, one actor tells the story, while the other does “thinking”. Joseph Harriott, playing Leonardo, stands silently, looking pensive and scribbling ideas, while Chris Connaughton, playing his assistant, talks to the audience about the man, his times and his ideas, and demonstrates how and why some inventions work.
The 50-minute show, from CTC Theatre company, could do with more biographical detail, but its matching of subject and style is very pleasing and its enthusiasm is infectious. My 10- and 12-year-old companions came out inspired.
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