A Frog Called Woânda is wondrous. The play, a collaborative production between Hexham based Théâtre Sans Frontières and Montreal company Théâtre À L'Envers, held its premiere in the Queen’s Hall, Hexham last week before its national tour. With the skilful use of performance, puppetry, shadow and live music, the company created a world where small people were invited to ask big questions about the world around them. The story was simple, yet full of surprising twists and turns. Laura, whose mother is ill, is being looked after by her grandfather. She drops her mother’s special ring down the bathroom sink, and when Woânda tries to help her find it, we encounter a story of love, loss and friendship. The audience, both young and not so young, were captivated throughout as the funny and touching narrative unfolded. Francine Dulong as Laura and John Cobb as her grandfather were a joy to watch. Puppeteer Patricia Bergeron brought Woânda skilfully to life, and musician Graham Raine created the breath of the production throughout. The use of shadows was a delight; they created a mystical atmosphere that allowed imaginations to fly. On tour, the play will be performed in simple French or English. It is suitable for children aged between 5 and 10 years, their families and friends. The play returns to the North-East at Hartlepool Town Hall Theatre on 21 October and Washington Arts Centre on 2 & 3 November. Hop along and catch it if you can. You won't be disappointed.
Gibby Rainesaw the show at Queen's Hall Arts Centre, Hexham
"The dance above the abyss"
Sometimes it’s hard to write a review about a superb play that fills you with love, hope, fear, passion and grief. Théâtre Sans Frontières’ production of David Almond’s ‘Heaven Eyes’ affected me profoundly. I’d planned to join the after-show discussion at Taunton’s Brewhouse Theatre, but theatre of this calibre can render me almost speechless. I needed to think deeply about the performance I had just seen. Talking with my friends, words came back to me later – now I fear they will fall short of conveying my wonder and appreciation.
Three orphans run away from their care home and the resented Circle Time sessions clumsily convened by the insensitive yet sentimental Maureen (Sarah Kemp). My work in a unit for troubled teenagers never showed me anyone quite as patronising, crass and needy as Maureen, who describes her charges, to their faces, as ‘damaged children’, but my companions felt the character needed to be a flawed therapist for dramatic purposes. Now that I’ve read the synopsis of the original novel, I feel I have more insight into Maureen’s character, but in the abbreviated context of the play Sarah Kemp has a very difficult job, which she handles well.
The escapees set off down the River Tyne on a ramshackle raft, built by January Carr (Lawrence Neale). I was thoroughly convinced of the emotional truths of each character, and moved by the children’s bravery. Stories of lost, absent parents, especially mothers, affect me deeply, and January’s abiding hope, that the young woman who abandoned him as a baby would one day find him again, had great poignancy. His story stitched together a scrap of factual material with patches of lyrical fantasy, a treasury of stories where the blankets were softer than any other blankets; his mother prettier than any other and he could feel her final, loving kiss and hear her parting words.
Erin Law (Natalie Ann Jamieson) has a box of treasures: photographs of her dead mother (played on film by Elena Miller; her lipstick; her perfume. I remembered my own mother’s distinctive blue perfume bottles – ‘Evening in Paris' – and wished I had kept one. Erin recalled playing in the garden as a little girl (played on film by Emma Hogg). Without sentimentality Natalie evoked the crippling loss of being cast out of Paradise.
The third runaway, Sean ‘Mouse’ Gullane (William Davies), has words tattooed/written on his arm, by his absent father, asking that his son be cared for. Quiet and timid, like his pet mouse Squeak, Sean’s salvation lies in finding a role; finding a purpose. Each character’s journey into the underworld represented by the Black Middens has mythic, heroic resonances – in the darkness and the mud, facing death and loss of hope, on the edge of adulthood, they forge friendships and hopes to transform and move them forward as a new family. Their fellow orphan, Wilson Cairns, (Paddy Burton) makes figures from clay and tries, God-like, to breathe life into his creations. The sense that we come from, and return to, the primordial swamp, is never far away. In between, we have lives to lead, changes to navigate and adventures to experience.
Erin, January and Sean run aground in the mud, and in an abandoned printing works they meet Heaven Eyes (Mariah Lindh) and Grampa (Paddy Burton). Mariah Lindh’s eldritch child, with her birth language, sleep-words and the utterances of Grampa combining into a unique patois, is enchanting and compelling. Grampa has cared for the strange girl, the loveliest thing he ever saw, from the moment he laid eyes on her. Her diet of corned beef, Cadbury’s orange creams and Montelimar chocolates; her eccentric clothing and her mysterious, untold story conspire to make Heaven Eyes unforgettable. As Grampa, Paddy Burton shows us an old man, nearing the end of his life, forgetful, confused, digging for ‘treasures’, held together by mud, routine, secrets, ferocity and love.
Director John Cobb has assembled a wonderfully talented cast and crew. Alison Ashton’s set design, built by Jon Codd, is a beautiful, dark, star-spattered marvel of scraps and tatters, reminding me of a favourite Leonard Cohen line – ‘All your children here/In their rags of light’. Alison McGowan’s puppet is quite simply the best I have ever seen and the puppet handling is first class. Kevin James’ projections and lighting are breathtakingly imaginative, and composer Ken Patterson’s music complements the story perfectly.
The great writer Ursula le Guin wrote, memorably, ‘There must be darkness to see the stars. The dance is always danced above the hollow place, above the terrible abyss.’ To many of us, these times seem dark indeed. If we despair, we only make them darker. David Almond and Théâtre Sans Frontières remind us of the resilience, beauty and courage of the human spirit and light a lantern to guide our way.
Just watched an incredible performance of Heaven Eyes. Brilliant to find a piece of theatre aimed at older children, my 10 year old is nuts about acting and story telling. This play had it all and I'm sure will inspire my girl to follow her dreams too. Thanks guys, you're a super talented group of artists!
Petra,Stamford about Heaven Eyes 2017
Review: Heaven Eyes at Washington Arts Centre 8 Feb 2017
Quality shines in family drama
Quality shines in family drama
Théâtre Sans Frontières presents
by David Almond
Washington Arts Centre
Wednesday 8th February 2017
We have said, many times, that there is a lack of suitable drama shows aimed at the kids too old for “Peppa Pig Live” etc but not yet ready for “Get Carter”. Heaven Eyes does well to fill that gap and is ideal for the Key Stage 3 child who is in need for a story that’s more challenging without being unsuitable. As an adult, the show had merits too as it explores the issues of how society deals with orphaned children.
At the start we are introduced to three children who are in care. Erin (Natalie Ann Jamieson) is always happy and has memories of her Mam before she died. January (Lawrence Neale) was abandoned outside of a hospital in an orange crate in the month of January. Sean (William Davies) starts off as a reclusive introvert who has a pet mouse in his coat. The care worker Maureen (Sarah Kemp, who is also the Assistant Director and Producer) starts off a circle time session that reveals much about each child.
January has been building a raft and he encourages the others to escape the home and go off on an adventure. They eventually land at some mud flats and that’s where they meet a girl called Heaven Eyes (Maria Lindh) and a man she calls Grampa (Paddy Burton) who digs around the mud looking for treasure. They may be an odd couple but they take the three children in and give them shelter.
The story explores some aspects of the emotional rollercoaster experienced by children with no contact with their parents. The play does get dark, and there are twists to the plot, but it never loses sight of the fabulous spirit often found in children. A great ensemble cast are easy to relate to and the characters are people you can be fond of. For this story to work it was important that the audience care about what happens to each person as they have their adventure and create a new family unit.
Alison Ashton has designed a set which helps the action flow rather than being an obstacle to the storytelling. John Cobb has directed a show which shows there can be light moments in the middle of major life events.
Heaven Eyes is a rich family tale that is perfect in particular for the 9-14 age group. The production is both engaging and entertaining. You leave with a smile on your face yet the story doesn’t trivialise the subject matter.
Stephen OliverNorth East Theatre Guide
Landmark Production Arrives in the North East - Chernobyl@30 - Monday 26th September 2016 - Alphabetti Theatre, Newcastle upon Tyne
30 years ago, on the 26th April 1986, reactor number 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power station exploded. The effect of that accident in the Ukraine was felt across Europe and even in the UK. Hexham based Theatre Sans Frontiéres has collaborated with the Ukrainian Arabesky Theatre to bring an updated version of their show to the region.
A significant part of the production is a film which includes eye witness accounts from Serhly Myrnyj, a writer/researcher at Kylv-Mohyla Academy. Like many students at the time, he was sent in to the area as a poorly trained liquidator with the job of cleaning up the mess. Testament also comes from the US journalist Mary Myclo, who has Ukranian parents, and visited the region ten years later and was amazed at how nature had flourished.
The fascinating film describes much of the effects of the aftermath of the disaster. A number of interviews with Cumbrian residents have been woven in thanks to Nick May’s 1989 film The Hills Are Alive.
In front of the film, director Svitlana Oleshko has added a number of live action sequences. These are delivered by Mykhaylo Barbara and Nataliia Tsymbal from the Ukraine and the UK’s John Cobb, Sarah Kemp amd Robert Nicholson. These sequences helped illustrate the experience of the army reservists. From the limited training and testing of radioactivity, through to the actual cleaning up and decontamination tasks. There is a sense of hopelessness to the tasks at times, though they are shovelling apples rather than radioactive fragments.
The show also features a lot of water from the showers and the rain. Perhaps the moment when one of the cast is slowly soaked through is symbolic of the rain that landed on the UK afterwards and people did not know if it was safe. For a small scale show, the water effects are highly effective.
As we are about to restart the UK nuclear power station building programme, the show comes at a timely point in the debate over our nations energy policy. Chernobyl @ 30 is not your average theatre production. Striking film combines with live action to mark the 30th anniversary of one of the world’s worst nuclear accidents. Tonight’s sell out audience was informed as much as they were entertained. The worrying after effect of seeing the show is a feeling of “it couldn’t happen here, could it?” If the show starts a debate amongst the audience then that is a positive reaction.
Stephen OliverNorth East Theatre Guide
One of Lorca’s earlier works, El Amor de Don Perlimpin y Belisa en su Jardin, is retold in this charming performance. Perlimpin, an old and wealthy man is convinced by his devoted servant to marry. He is charmed by Belisa from her balcony, a beautiful, greedy young woman. What follows is a portrayal of seduction and deception on both sides, with consistently gripping tension and anticipation as the cast tempt and deceive the audience as well. Lorca’s original is introduced in a prologue with four characters akin to the Shakespearean fool; wise narrators who are disguised in carnivalesque merriment and joking. If you’re a fan of A Midsummer Night’s Dream then this might be the play for you.
The narrators introduce themselves as ‘duendes’, meaning sprites. They celebrate the key moments in Lorca’s life, as if told by his own presiding spirits in the garden. Dressed in identical black worker’s jumpsuits and red pioneer neckerchiefs, they set their intentions straight from the beginning. There are broadly two types of people in an audience – those who are regular theatre goers, classy and cultured, and the ordinary people who might be considered uncultured. The latter are the performance’s most fertile recipients. They explain that the socialist Lorca was on the side of the marginalised: gypsies, black people and Jews. The moral hierarchy of the play’s characters places the servant, Marcolfa, on the highest rung, far above her wealthy master. Belisa and her mother are corrupted by the allure of Perlimpin’s wealth, as she greedily tries to obtain many more men from around the world in a single night.
Performed in Spanish, with English subtitles available on stage, the narrators preluding script is partially also in the form of some of Lorca’s original, incredibly beautiful poetry which is very atmospheric; “theatre is poetry that rises from the page” after all. Lorca conceived the piece in musical terms, and so guitars, clarinet and lots of Spanish songs ardently heat the stage.
When the play was first performed in 1929 it was confiscated by the police. Four years later Pura de Ucelay, a dynamic feminist, retrieved the script. Unlike most texts set in the 18th century, the idea of the woman as a dangerous temptress is upheaved. Perlimpin is the residing trickster, arguably more so then her. “I am my soul and you are your body”, are his final words to Belisa; he gives her a soul but in the process loses his.
For a night of infectious laughter, but also sadness in a rare performance that begins to touch upon the consequences of money, misused power, and inequality, this performance comes highly recommended.
Tamara StantonPlays to See
In the programme foreword, author David Almond, the North East writer who adapted his own book for this new production, describes Heaven Eyes as ‘a dark and wet and filthy tale’, but with ‘a lot of light, and a great deal of hope’.
Having seen this new version by Théâtre Sans Frontières, in partnership with the Alnwick Playhouse, I would have to agree.
I would also add that while nominally a children’s book and play, it offers a great deal for both young and old and it was pleasing, I’m sure, for those involved in the production that there were a good number of youngsters in the audience last night.
The performance was by turns funny, fantastic, scary, poignant and sad and as an adult, I found some of the most powerful moments came when each child was alone on stage, trying to come to terms with where they came from.
Those lucky enough to see the premiere, which kicks off a tour around the region, were also able to listen to David Almond as well as director John Cobb during a post-show discussion after the performance.
Ben O'Connell Northumberland Gazette
Anyone who glibly lumps David Almond into the category of ‘children’s author’, thinking cute reads for kiddies, reckons without Heaven Eyes.
Actually, they also reckon without Skellig, the famous debut novel which preceeded it. Both lead their young readers – and adults, too – into strange realms of the imagination where there are questions but no easy answers.
It’s a brave theatre company which tries to turn the supernatural qualities of a David Almond story into something tangible – especially one with a hair-raising Tyne voyage as its centrepiece.
Three young residents of a children’s home, where tension crackles among the rootless and parentless, make good their escape on a raft. It belongs to devil-may-care January Carr (Lawrence Neale) who takes Erin Law (Natalie Ann Jamieson) for the ride. She has nothing to lose but her life, she says, but then what’s that worth?
‘Mouse’ Gullane, who has a pet called Squeak, cadges a lift and the trio launch themselves into the unknown aboard this very flimsy looking craft. Washed up on the Black Middens at the mouth of the Tyne, they are rescued by the mysterious Heaven Eyes (Swedish actress Maria Lindh) whose ‘Grampa’ (Paddy Burton) is less than pleased.
The drama swirls around these characters, their fears, suspicions and budding friendships. Everything comes to a head when something – someone? – is pulled from the middens mud.
Théàtre sans Frontières, based in Hexham, is equipped for a job like this, having forged a reputation for highly inventive foreign language shows aimed at children.
It has mustered a small army of top creative people to get Heaven Eyes on stage, including a puppet maker, Alison McGowan (don’t be thinking Sooty or Basil Brush), and film-makers Christo Wallers and Mike Edwick for back projections.
On Alison Ashton’s compact set, which rotates to turn orphanage backdrop into the bizarre domain of the title character, the action takes place at a gallop.
The young actors are all superb, the anger of ‘Jan’, the easy adaptability of ‘Mouse’ and the feisty practicality of Erin perfectly realised. The Swedish accent and language of Lindh, who in any case has an ethereal quality, highlights the strangeness of the piece.
I didn’t think the play’s big moment, when the mud yields its fairly gory offering, had the impact it might have done. Too much was happening on stage at the same time and an opportunity seemed lost. What can leap effortlessly from the page into the imagination can seem a bit clunky when acted out and here was proof of that.
But the children in this matinee performance were rapt throughout. I heard only one word uttered, a muted “scary”. That would have been music to the ears of all concerned.
David Whetstone The Journal
I saw the evening show of Théâtre Sans Frontières' production of Heaven Eyes at Arts Centre Washington. The audience was primarily adult but there were a couple of rows of kids.
At the end there was enthusiastic applause; the company did their curtain calls and left the stage as the house lights came up. We started to leave but the kids were not satisfied; they continued to applaud until the cast came back on and took another few bows. Then they let them go.
That, I think, says so much, not just about the production but about the appeal of David Almond's work for children.
Heaven Eyes, which is about three teenagers running away from an orphanage to find freedom, is grittily realistic but with an other-worldly edge which clearly appeals to children. These three, although very different to each other, have one thing in common: they have no families but do have images in their minds which are, perhaps, a mixture of memory and fantasy.
Escaping from the orphanage, sailing away down the Tyne on a raft made from a door and meeting the enigmatic Grampa and the somewhat fey Swedish girl whom Grampa calls Heaven Eyes, they forge their own family ties through the experiences - some of which are quite scary - they have on the way.
The three teenagers - Erin Law (played by Natalie Ann Jamieson), January Carr (Lawrence Neale) and Mouse Gullane (Robert Nicholson) - are all very different, as are their reactions to the strange duo of Gampa (Paddy Burton) and Heaven Eyes (Swedish actress Maria Lindh).
Their reactions reflect their characters: Erin soon bonds with the Swedish girl, Mouse wants to be useful and help Grampa in his digging for "treasure" and January is sure they are going to be murdered and so becomes aggressive. It is a credit to Almond's writing and the performances of Jamieson, Neale and Nicholson that, in the short amount of time we see them before the meeting with Grampa and Heaven Eyes, their very different reactions seem perfectly natural to us and what we would expect of each of them.
The strength of the characterisation is evident in the part of Maureen (played by Sarah Kemp), a member of the orphanage staff, whose patronising do-goodery in the one scene in which she appears reveals her total lack of understanding of her teenage charges.
It's a fine cast, sensitively directed by John Cobb, and the rest of the production supports writer and performers well. Alison Ashton's set is compact and flexible, morphing from scene to scene with deceptive ease, and Alison McGowan has created one of the most lifelike (although that may not be quite the right word - I will not elaborate further as it might be a bit of a spoiler!) puppets I have seen in a long time. Ken Patterson's music and Kevin James's lighting add their contribution to the mood and atmosphere.
Peter Lathan British Theatre Guide
Excellent visual effects, acting superb | Extremely powerful - felt engaged and intrigued throughout | Brilliant production, fantastic scenery - very atmospheric. Loved the young actors. Fascinating talk afterwards. A most enjoyable evening all round | Imaginative use of film and set | A very well acted ensemble production of an interesting piece | Excellent story
Audience comments, Alnwick Playhouse -about Heaven Eyes 2014