Saturday, 15 December 2018

Boatbuilders proves the perfect venue

BILLED as “a fishy tale of high jinks on the high seas”, Henry Muge was staged

BILLED as “a fishy tale of high jinks on the high seas”, Henry Muge was staged in Henwood & Dean’s Hambleden boatyard. Magical, atmospheric and traditional all at once.

Written and directed by Gail Rosier, the full title of this tale of West Country pirates was The Continuing Story of Henry Muge and his Good Friend Ned Pellew.

So it was that on a rather rainy Tuesday evening we witnessed roughly in order: romance, childbirth, murder, storms, a love story, a shipwreck, a giant octopus, some kissing, horses, camels, another murder, a priapic cockerel and some very willing chickens, more romance and lots more kissing, a stabbing in the house of God, an exhumation, a battle and — you guessed it — even more kissing.

All of this was contained in the latest piece of storytelling magic from the Acorn Music Theatre Company.

Founded more than 25 years ago, the company specialises in the creation of inventive storytelling productions that really do challenge and break the accepted norms of young people’s theatre.

Since we are all at sea in this review, Acorn quite simply are ‘Masters and Commanders’ of this genre.

Thanks to Henwood & Dean, it was great to see Acorn performing in a more intimate setting where the cast could totally engage and even physically interact with their audience.

I can quite see the wonderful learning curve of working in a traditional theatre space, but for me sitting so close to one story, The Curse of the White Bird, where I really felt like I was sitting at the pub table where the story was being recounted, was a very powerful thing.

There were so many moments in this production where this “closeness” paid dividends, with actors dying on audience members’ laps, audience members throwing back missiles used in battles, and being closely examined by a very inquisitive and sometimes just downright pushy bunch of hens.

Taking as its starting point the stories of Henry Muge, a pirate active in Stokenham in Tudor times, and his friend Ned Pellew, who became Lord Exmouth, the company created a series of short stories that took us on a fantastical journey from the sinking of the Dutton to the Battle of Algiers.

This was very sophisticated storytelling. It was savvy, hugely witty and as the tales twisted and turned the company cleverly played with the audience’s perceptions of what was true and what was fiction, as the company openly told us “Truth is a slippery dog and you won’t find it here.”

To quote one of Acorn’s most valued supporters: “It is not the Acorn way to pick out actors by name, as they operate so much as a company.” So let us talk “moments” instead. For me, the show was just jam-packed with lovely ideas beautifully realised on stage.

I loved the introductory welcome before we entered the performance space and the moment when I witnessed the actors being told to be “louche and leaning” as the audience walked past them.

The boy giving birth sequence was a masterstroke, the arrival of the lampshade octopus was pure genius, and the storytelling and individual performances in the tale of The Complete Woman were about as high quality as it can get. Throughout it all there was a live band playing original music and songs (the ballad singing, I felt, was really good). They also provided sound effects and memorably became part of the action as Susan Pellew’s children.

Special mention has to be given to one of the best of Acorn’s stories: Susan Pellew’s Henhouse aka The Fox and Chickens. It does not matter how many times Acorn reinterpret this story — it is such a simple idea, beautifully executed.

A trademark of Acorn is strong physical theatre skills and this was evident throughout, used to create the movement of the ship, a storm, characterise animals, to quite technical and daring moments when members of the company walked over the backs of others and some lovely comic death sequences.

The devising was witty and there were some fabulous moments of comedy and examples of comic timing that showed great maturity and insight.

I am guessing that by now you will have realised that I just loved it. Yes, some of the younger performers needed to project more and be a little more secure in what they were doing and things went wrong — but it did not matter a jot. In fact, it just added to the wonderfully relaxed and quirky atmosphere of the piece.

Review: Catherine Saker

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