The Story of the Little Gentleman
Catherine Wheels Theatre Company
Macrobert, Stirling, October 9, 10
G12, Glasgow, October 11
Banchory, October 19
Montrose, October 20
Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, October 21
Tullynessie, Alford, October 22
Findhorn, October 23
NEAC, Edinburgh, October 26
When an attractive gift comes wrapped in plain brown paper, the surprise and pleasure must be all the greater.
That has to be why the Catherine Wheels Theatre Company chooses the opaque title The Story of the Little Gentleman and merely adds the meagre explanation that it is a story of a lonely man who makes friends with a dog. Don't be put off. Director Gill Robertson understands better than most how theatre works and she has the track record to prove it.
In the five years since she founded the company, her productions have enthralled children, won critical acclaim and earned the coveted prize of core funding from the Scottish Arts Council.
This latest production, which started its tour in Musselburgh's Brunton Theatre, where the company is housed by East Lothian Council, uses an apparently simple Scandinavian story to conjure a sequence of images that resonate as much with young children as with their parents.
The way Robertson can create this simultaneous interaction with audiences of all ages is significant and not to be confused with what theatre people call the "family show", which is generally simple fun for the young, leavened by the occasional nudge and wink for the adults. Robertson's genre is very different. She turns the constraint of making art for children into a purity of communication, by paring away performance and dialogue until she is left with the common, human stock of emotional triggers and responses that we had before we knew the words to label them.
So when the gentleman's advertisement for a friend finds no response, and his loneliness is then invaded by a cheerful dog, the wooing, bartering, tormenting and sharing of their unfolding relationship becomes a sketch of every friendship or even love story you ever knew or read about.
While for teachers and parents this can be a pleasing or rueful retrospective, for youngsters it maps out the territory of making friends and being friends, a pressing concern for those who have to exchange the security of home for the complexities of school.
First the cast make friends with the audience, who are welcomed into the theatre by the gentle sub-song of cello (Clea Friend) and accordion (Fiona Young). On stage throughout, the adventurous way these two instruments are woven into the dialogue and moods of the play is one of the delights of the production. They become at times almost interactive characters in a kind of micro-opera, and so win an unusual kind of musical attentiveness from their young audience.
Man and dog are played by Sean Hay and Maria Oller, he all bland gentleness and she the skittish, moody animal that eats his biscuits, shares his bed and generally changes his life. The first tentative steps of their befriending, the drawing of boundaries, the forgiveness through the seasons of the year hold the children transfixed, like the 4-year-old near me, frozen in the act of raising a sweet to lips parted in a smile.
This kind of free-flowing, witty storytelling looks easy but, as Fred Astaire liked to say, "If it doesn't look easy, we haven't practised hard enough". Oller and Hay are two accomplished performers who make the action flow like water, flicking with sharp precision through the episodes of their friendship. Not for the first time, the Catherine Wheels success is due to their impeccable teamwork, founded again on a set by designer Karen Tennent that fits the twists and turns of the story like a glove.