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Wee Stories expands style to fill big stages

Most of us are happy that Christmas comes only once a year, but then we are not theatre managers. For them it means the pantomime season and large family audiences.

The question of how to get this desirable audience into the biggest theatres at other times has previously puzzled the Scottish Touring Theatre Consortium. Its answer for this autumn was to commission Wee Stories Theatre for Children to create a family show and tour it to Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Inverness.

The Edinburgh-based company has an impressive record of making theatre that appeals to young and old at the same time. Lara Bowen, the general manager, is scornful of those who regard children's productions as being anything other than proper theatre.

"Children are people," she says firmly, "irrespective of how old or tall they are. We all have our imaginative response, our capacity for fun and our sense of values from our youth up, and if we are clever we try to preserve them."

She relies on the creative talents of Andy Cannon and Iain Johnstone to devise and deliver her credo. When offered the open spaces of four of Scotland's largest stages, they chose the great British epic of King Arthur and Camelot.

Cannon's way into the swirling mists of legend and myth was via the cereal packets of his youth, when Kellogg's cornflakes came with knights of the Round Table to collect and cut out. Kellogg's gladly obliged with replicas from their archives and Arthur, the Story of a King began with Iain Johnstone carrying on a stack of cereal boxes to be arranged as standing stones and castles and for Cannon to cut out headgear for the knights and damsels' wimples. These became the symbols with which the two told the tale and the performance thereafter hung by the thread of their stagecraft.

Theatre-goers have been accustomed by the National Theatre of Brent and the Reduced Shakespeare Company to the inherently humorous effect of male duos performing stage epics. Cannon and Johnstone have so honed their stage partnership that I was reminded of Morecombe and Wise.

The production held the fort of seriousness, preserved from vaudeville by little pieces of theatre magic, such as Cannon's conjuring up of Merlin with a red cloth and a candlestick. This would have been complete and satisfying in the small theatres Wee Stories is used to but in the bigger spaces the Scottish Touring Theatre Consortium had lined up the company added mood music by musical director and pianist David Trouton, a portentous voice-over, projected medieval images and the mysteries of singer Alyth McCormack and her group.

These were effective but at the same time served as a reminder that the genius of Wee Stories lies in the spectacle created by the artistry of the players, who draw the audience into a complicit imaginative universe where the story establishes its own truth for each spectator.

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