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"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.



Avril Silk,

Review: Heaven Eyes at Washington Arts Centre 8 Feb 2017
Quality shines in family drama

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Quality shines in family drama

Théâtre Sans Frontières presents

Heaven Eyes

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 Lorcas 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. Lorcas 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 youre a fan of A Midsummer Nights Dream then this might be the play for you.

The narrators introduce themselves as duendes, meaning sprites. They celebrate the key moments in Lorcas life, as if told by his own presiding spirits in the garden. Dressed in identical black workers 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 performances 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 plays characters places the servant, Marcolfa, on the highest rung, far above her wealthy master. Belisa and her mother are corrupted by the allure of Perlimpins 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 Lorcas original, incredibly beautiful poetry which is very atmospheric; theatre is poetry that rises from the pageafter 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'ConnellNorthumberland 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 WhetstoneThe 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 LathanBritish Theatre Guide

Canary Gold is an interesting play, slightly flawed in concept, but performed with verve. The plot surrounds a modern-day businessman’s plan to import malmsey – that’s wine from the Canary Islands – and the machinations of his trading partners as they try to unload a particularly precious vintage. We also see scenes from the colonial era, which teach us about the history of malmsey and carry some knowing parallels to the present day. But I was attracted to Canary Gold for one simple reason: it’s performed, which supertitles, in three languages, English, Spanish and French.The technique works well during the colonial scenes, when it reinforces a sense of tribalism or general separation; but in the twenty-first century part of the play, it often seems to be done for no particular reason. The dialogue is fast, making it a challenge to follow the captions, and occasionally the actors or parts of the set blocked my view of the words. Most oddly of all, there was a scene which combinedphysical comedy with dialogue in French, which meant I had to choose between reading the supertitles orlooking at the capering. In general – while I admire the decision to try something different – I felt the multi-lingual sections needed to be approached with a little more consideration for the audience. Visually, on the other hand, this play works very well. There’s some elegant design around a simple set, which successfully evokes scenes as varied as a sailing ship and an upmarket apartment using little more than a packing crate on wheels. And the 16th-century costumes are gorgeous: look out in particular for Elizabeth I, whose outfit is made partially with pages from the Financial Times. Somewhatunexpectedly, Elizabeth also breaks into an operatic aria, and while that’s not my area of expertise it seemed a remarkably impressive performance to my untrained ear. The modern-day scenes, however, are less stylish. At times they were a touch too realistic – you even have to sit through a business presentation – and the script is a little heavy on overt exposition. Thereare a couple of highlights, including one fast-flowing scene where we see a woman seeking a mortgage being passed from bank to bank until she’s been lent far more than she could possibly afford, but overall I thought this part of the play needed to focus down more onto what’s truly essential to the plot. There are some hints of clever parallels between modern times and history, but I felt they remained under-developed; the colonial sections are almost relegated to scene-setting for the contemporary plot. Or so it seems, until the jaw-droppingly weird moment when a 16th-century merchant arrives on stage with an electric guitar. And that, I think, sums it up: Canary Gold is fun and adventurous – piling up a host of neat ideas, though sometimes in a slightly ramshackle order. They haven’t quite found treasure this time, but I’d sail with them again.

Richard Stamp FringeGuru

This production sang like a canary and shone like gold, but was it fool’s gold? The story begins in the sixteenth century, shifting back and forth to modern day. The song “What would you do with a drunken sailor, what would you do with a merchant banker” encapsulates much of the essence of the story. ‘Canary Gold’ is a highly prized sweet white wine from the Canaries, being a sweet classic Madeira grape, golden in colour, hence its name; known in England as Malmsey, it has been around a long time and always highly valued. Shakespeare refers to it in Henry IV part 2, Falstaff says “You have drunk too much Canneries, that’s a marvellous searching wine” and Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night has a “cup of Canary”. The piece endeavours to relate the 500 years trade between the Canary Islands and the UK. It refers specifically to the pirates that stole it and to modern day speculators who use it purely as investment, to the point of deception. What is the difference between thieves, pirates or bankers? In the 16th century goods and wine were unloaded at Canary Wharf, which today is the international centre for banking and finance. “I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies” said Thomas Jefferson, who features in the story. A rare bottle with “Th J “on the label appears for sale in London; can this have belonged to the USA president Thomas Jefferson when celebrating the Declaration of Independence, or is it a fake?

The cast of four play many characters spanning centuries. Sir Francis Drake alias Bob Drake (John Cobb) handles many lengthy monologues with ease, showing his theatrical expertise and experience; Jason Hawkins (Paddy Burton) portrays many characters and displays his musical talents. The two women are a good counterfoil, Milagros Alonso (Josefa Suarez) being the strongest Spanish contributor and Clemence de Lafayette (Sophie Millon) the French.

Live music, songs, frequent costume changes, varying from Elizabethan to modern and movement maintain an exuberant, youthful atmosphere, maintaining non-stop action. Exotic, outrageous characters, real and fictitious, meld together with the wine back and forth through the centuries. Some of the choreographed movement is very clever and witty, the mixture of languages and time frames well handled,

The set (Alison Ashton) facilitates a multitude of possibilities regarding all aspects of the production; comprising mainly of trucks and four tea chests which are adapted to form many locations; a very well designed set for a touring production. The lighting (Dimas Cedres) creates very atmospheric effects on the back cloth and drapes, together with sound effects which enhanced the action.

This is a co-production between the Hexham based Theatre Sans Frontiers and Teatro Tamaska from Tenerife, both formed nearly 24 years ago. Mainly in English, the Spanish and French have unobtrusive surtitles, which are often not required as the meaning is generally gathered from the action. A cross between a child’s pop-up story book and serious message with songs, all delivered with tongue in cheek, with a rather naive quality. Whilst the themes were all connected and relevant, ‘Canary Gold’ is an over flowing glass quite suddenly drained with a song, making the show a little frantic, a lot of content indeed for 100 minutes! If you do not get a chance to see the show it is touring Tenerife in April, culture on holiday.

The full house took to this feast with relish showing their appreciation audibly. The Q&A with the company and offer of wine tasting after the show continued the personal feel of the evening, which was educational and entertaining.

Anna Ambelez The Public Reviews



Can we trust what it says on the bottle or in the small print at the bank? David Whetstone reviews Canary Gold, a new play premiered this week at the Queen’s Hall in Hexham.

A RICH evening’s entertainment hangs on the tale of a bottle of wine – allegedly a very old bottle.

I say allegedly because this is a play mainly about greed and duplicity, linking 16th Century pirates with the big beasts of 21st Century high finance.

Is that bottle of wine, supposedly from the same batch as the bottle uncorked by Thomas Jefferson to toast the American Declaration of Independence in 1769, real or fake?

If its monetary value is reliant on its contents never being consumed, does it really matter?

The ironies of the investment game – with particular regard to wine – provide the production’s funniest lines, although some of these are well-known, as in Laurence J Peter’s “an economist is an expert who will know tomorrow why the things he predicted yesterday didn’t happen today”.

Canary Gold is an intriguing, full-blooded co-production between Theatre Sans Frontieres, which is based in Hexham, and Teatro Tamaska from Tenerife.

The leading lights in both companies have studied and performed together over many years and share an interest in physical and multi-lingual drama.

What better theme for them both to explore than the historic part played by wine in relations between Britain and Spain, and specifically the Canary Islands where so many of us go for sun-kissed hols?

A talented cast of four – two English actors
(John Cobb and Paddy Burton), one French (Sophie Millon) and one Spanish (Josefa Suárez) – take us, in the first half, back to the 16th Century and to encounters on the high seas between Francis Drake and those sailing under rival flags.

Condemned as a common pirate by the Spanish, Drake’s habit of returning home with glorious trinkets for Elizabeth I prompted her to dub him Sir Francis and build the foundations of the British Empire on his example – or so we are told.

Little wooden boats, some of them strangely reminiscent of packing cases with sails, provide platforms for the actors as they are pushed around the stage, with even smaller hand- held versions used to illustrate the turbulence of the sea.

Meanwhile, in the present day, a banker called Bob Drake hosts an investors’ day at Canary Wharf where wine experts are extolling the virtues of Canary Gold, a wine with the promise of paradise and, naturally, of a good future mark-up.

They look so trustworthy, those wine experts, just the kind of people you’d entrust with your hard-earned cash. But as we learned during the credit crunch, a well-cut suit is no guarantee of reliability.

Canary Gold, directed by Carlos Belda, offers much food for thought as actors change costumes and languages while cavorting around Alison Ashton’s simple yet effective set.

The second half of the play, with an infusion of modern-day intrigue surrounding that bottle of Jefferson plonk, works better than the first.

But in the spirit of Robert Lepage, the influential Canadian theatre director for whom members of both these companies have worked, the fine-tuning will continue until things run as smoothly as Canary Gold. 


David Whetstone The Journal