Tall story

18th April 1997 at 01:00
Ann FitzGerald watches a puppet version of Jack and the Beanstalk

Jack and the Beanstalk conjures up pictures of a pantomime Dame, a lazy boy, and oodles of glitz, comic turns and shouted responses.

In the farrago of pantomime it's easy to lose the story altogether, but in researching his puppet play for primary school children, actor and puppeteer, Clive Chandler hunted out as many versions of the original tale as he could find.

Timeless themes emerged: the worry and despair of being desperately poor; the need for boldness, cunning and a bit of luck to win through against all the odds; the "I'm bigger than you" swagger of the bullying "giant", and the brave and generous impulse to rescue the victim.

These are fundamental qualities, which have kept the old story alive in its many guises, and what Chandler seized on for his own, slightly up-dated, version at the Midlands Arts Centre in Birmingham.

In the cosy venue of MAC's cinema (with the screen removed) there is no stage separating the children from the action. The auditorium slopes down to a delightful, story-book set of a little wooden shed nestling in a pretty garden, painted by book illustrator Su Eaton. Chandler enters and sets a friendly tone with: "Hallo, I'm the puppet man. I tell stories." He chats for a few moments, adjusting the children's view of Jack: "I expect you've heard he's a lazy, good for nothing, but he's not lazy, he's just a dreamer. Jack's head is full of wonderful dreams and stories."

Chandler explains, "I want the children to feel that it's all right to imagine things and make up stories and characters of their own." The hour-long show is an absorbing, enchanting experience for children and adults. Chandler opens the windows of the shed to reveal a little stage, the playboard for the bright, brimming with life, puppet characters of Jack, his Mother and Father, who make their living from a flower farm, Daisy the cow, the Magic Pedlar who buys Daisy for a can of magic beans, a Giant and his frightened skivvy of a servant, Dorothy. A violin, played by Lucy Collinge-Hill, adds an eloquent commentary to the story.

There is adventure, humour, sadness and joy, and moments when the children "help" Jack to solve problems. As if to prove that magic is no outdated concept, the little shed turns into a complete box of tricks: a giant cloud obscures the sun; a giant hook descends from the cloud to steal the magic hen and magic harp, which Jack's family hoped would be their salvation, and a magic beanstalk grows up into the cloud taking Jack on his big adventure.

Chandler says: "Puppets are a particularly good medium for young children's drama. There is an underlying knowledge that they're not 'real', and whatever frightening things happen there is always the hidden presence of the friendly, human story-teller in the background. The children know I'm doing it all, yet they engage with the puppet characters. They're just dead wood, but for the duration of the story they're vividly alive." That's magic for you.

Ann FitzGerald At Midlands Arts Centre until May 5, with weekend family performances (11am, 1.30pm) and special schools' performances Tuesday-Friday (10am, 1.30pm). A teachers' pack is available. Details and bookings tel: 0121 440 3838

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