[Review:] BIRDIE'S ADVENTURES IN THE ANIMAL KINGDOM, Harrow Arts Centre, London.
The atmosphere as the audience enters is clever, artistic and well-constructed: beams of yellow and blue splitting through a hazed dim stage, and two simple white fabric flats. A simple set design by Cheng Keng but a dynamic one. With the accompaniment of relaxing music (composed by Grace Joy Howarth), the creatives have created the perfect environment to settle, calm and relax the young audience but also to prepare them to take the material slightly more seriously, open-mindedly and receptively. But then we have the stagehands enter Upstage, milling around, moving odd-bits and set pieces. This is hugely destructive of illusion and is a subtraction from our first [and what should remain our] still, untouched and peaceful visual. I fail to see what preparations are needed here that could not have been executed before the audience enter, as they should have been, in order to keep the stage fictionalised and, in this way, uncontaminated. Most unprofessional. An effective set and tech design here is completely compromised.
It is imperative in children’s theatre that aesthetics and visual semiotics take priority, that they are conspicuous and transparent, and that they serve as storytellers in themselves. This is not merely for colourful visual appeal but due to an undeveloped capacity for abstract thinking, which is still the case even for the children at the highest end of the target audience age range: ten years old. Visually, this performance is very lacking, however, and not only have simple solutions been omitted here, but there are various visual elements that actually contradict the sociopolitical messages of the play that we are meant to take away from it.
First, these simple solutions. Costume (designed by Sophie Aubz) is simply awful, a huge issue in this performance. Even as an adult, I could barely discern which animals the actors were portraying until this was explicitly detailed in speech or discernible [a posteriori] from the characters’ contexts. More than mere ears on a headband is needed to signal the specific animals these actors represent. Following on from this, further extremity in the actors' portrayals is needed to communicate the morphological and physiological particularities and the individual identities of the characters that they are representing — much more than locked bodily positions, twitches, changes in vocal pitch, and limps are required here. I shall elaborate upon the acting below. Similarly, an increased number and frequency of sound effects — waves for the ocean, cracking ice for the polar bear’s habitat, tractors and baaing/mooing/etc. for the farm — would better communicate context, which is currently undisclosed in the majority of scenes, except, sometimes fleetingly, in dialogue.
On to this second point: that certain aspects of this performance contradict its overarching sociopolitical aims. This performance, quite honourably, aims to teach children the importance of keeping our planet safe through a specific critical lens that observes the impact of human activity on the animal kingdom. Providing various snapshots of animals during the Anthropocene, the performance aims to expose the dangers, struggles and tortures that animals endure today at the hands of both our dominion and carelessness, and it aims to do this through an imaginative fictional narrative, seeing our animals speaking and anthropomorphised, and through song. It is a promising text, presenting a great range of contexts and abuses from the ill-treatment of household pets to the mass pollution of the sea. We are presented these through the [so-called] ‘compassionate’ eyes of our titular character, Birdie (Ana Chloe Moorey), who is flown to the various settings of the play by her newfound best friend, Robin (Gabe Hampton-Saint). It is a sweet, endearing and magical premise.
However, it is what happens when we arrive at the various settings that allows for this sense of contradiction. Each animal explains its troubles and sufferances and then proceeds to elaborate upon these through song. Often, these songs are campy and filled with humour. Choreography (by Hampton-Saint) facilitates this comedy, too, especially for Vikram Grover’s song as Cluck the Turkey or during Amy Margareta (playing Monty the Monkey) and Grover's (also playing Ellis the Elephant) duet. Ironically, despite the overall significance of lyrics, and the skeletal narrative, the animals seem to be mocking their own fates, with Cluck humouring the idea of being a Christmas dinner with a campy Christmas medley, and with Monty rolling about the floor, joyously dancing with Ellis whilst singing about the destruction of his habitat.
There is a certain lack of seriousness in this play in which the animals seem far too gleeful and upbeat despite their distress. This not only dampens the effect when Birdie finally 'saves' each of the animals by the end of their respective scenes [how exactly is never truly elucidated] — for if they were happy to begin with, what has she really changed? — but also discredits and delegitimises the animals' experiences and sufferings. We should see these animals truly miserable and pained, only to have their hope reignited once Birdie identifies the issues they face and sets out to save not just these individual animals but the entirety of each of their species.
More significantly, this contradictory reading is intensified by the background presence of Birdie and Robin whilst the animals are delivering their songs. Throughout the entire play, except for in the scenes including Buttercup the Cow (Charlotte Swarbrick) [more on this below], we see Birdie and Robin either smiling or laughing as the animals detail their trauma or misery, merely enjoying sharing the space with these magical animals, or completely detached from the action altogether, playing their own games with one another, passing and interacting with theatrical properties and mimicking the animals. With Birdie and Robin being our guides through this play, with their actions and reactions signposting the audience to the best treatment of and respect for animals and the planet, this display completely obliterates and ridiculises any cogency, seriousness or urgency that this play intends to communicate. We are taught by these characters to feed the mere narrative that we care whilst, in reality, flippantly enjoying and selfishly profiting from the contexts of animal cruelty and suffering that we are presented here. We are taught, in fact, to laugh about the fates and actualities of the animals with which we share this planet, and to see them as mere pathetic caricatures that mock and, paradoxically, take pleasure in their own despair, singing, dancing, seemingly having the time of their lives.
This performance struggles severely to elucidate the realities of the animal kingdom but also to re-animalise the characters that we are presented. We access and empathise with these characters only through the characteristics that we share with one another, and this is detrimental to our reading, especially when we turn to the character of Buttercup the Cow. Devoid of seriousness and true emotional stimuli, this play then presents us with a farm animal who has had her calf taken from her by humans. Whilst the other animals — the fish, the polar bear, the monkeys, for example — are affected indirectly by humans, by deforestation or by air or sea pollution, this cow and Cluck are the only animals that are directly targeted by humans, bred, farmed, tortured and killed specifically for their bodies and their products, and whilst the latter is just as ridiculised as its precedents, Buttercup has a far more relatable and earthy character, maternal and emotional, unlike the rest of the animals we have been presented thus far. It is most peculiar that the creatives have chosen to treat this animal type and her suffering with more humanity and solemnity than the others, and, whilst this remains a powerful section in itself, put beside the more ‘playful’ [or careless] scenes, it is clear as to which narrative this scene inevitably promotes, and it is not a narrative that coincides with the performance’s underlying aims. Supported by thematic clauses such as 'The love that a mother feels for her son', with which the audience type can more readily identify, our reading becomes that her trauma and experience are somehow greater, intenser, rawer because its attributes are profoundly relatable to us humans, and, more importantly, to the parents and children that compose the audience. Birdie and Robin both treat her circumstances with seriousness, sorrow and sympathy now, too, expressing these earnestly, joining her in her doleful song, and acting immediately to help her find her child.
This is, by far, the most emotive, impactful and hence efficacious section of the performance, and it is very well constructed. However, we learn nothing of the dairy industry, how these animals are exploited and affected beyond having their children taken away, and nothing about what they must endure. In this, the only scene that truly demands our empathy, feeling and seriousness, is a failure to acknowledge that which separates these animals from us humans. We are not taught to feel empathy for the living sentient beings that we might find foreign or otherwise inaccessible. Thus, the undesirable connotation here is that we should only care profoundly for animals displaying what we consider to be human characteristics. this can also be applied to our understanding of Birdie's relationship to Steve's (Paul Bruce) puppy. However, I should point out here that even the ending of this scene with Buttercup is ridiculised to some extent, with the comedic appearance of the puppet representing her calf.
The above is not to take away from the efficacy of this section itself — it is certainly an impactful and charged scene, as evidenced by the stirring of the young audience, rising from their seats to get a better look, visibly invested — but merely to highlight, when found amongst the rest of the material we are presented in this performance, being so distinguished thematically and stylistically from it, how the overall communication of the underlying sociopolitical agenda becomes confused and misaligned in this way.
Having a similar effect, descriptions of ‘The Destroyer’ [until he is portrayed by Bruce], representative of humankind, are far too fictionalised and exaggerated. That The Destroyer eats burgers, drives cars and litters everywhere is most relatable and realistic, understanding that this is us. However, having long sharp teeth and pointed fingers, as described by the characters and depicted in what I shall refer to henceforth as the shadow sequence, is so monstrous that it subtracts from the reality to which the play refers us. All spectacular, descriptive and aesthetic features should aim to complement, sharpen and concretise our readings, not to embellish them beyond recognisability. In this way, our own everyday actions are separated from the narrative of the actions of 'humankind'; we lose our sense of personal action and duty.
Sticking with this 'shadow sequence', this is by far the most impressive, memorable and enjoyable feature of this performance, seeing an assortment of representations, achieved by both static and active shadowing bodies. I would just recommend that these bodies are not repeated, such as the sad cloud symbolic of air pollution, for example, and that the song’s campiness be toned down ever so slightly, so that the dark intensity of this ‘character’ can be better understood as wholly negative and not in any way enjoyable, quirky or inviting. It seems there is a resistance in this play against scaring the young audience or presenting a world that is too ‘doom and gloom’; this is a naïve decision.
Considering the language use in this performance, specialist vocabulary such as 'greenhouse gases' ought to be better elucidated. Other than this, however, this text is certainly accessible to its target audience. When it comes to elucidating the core principles and phenomena this performance addresses, meaning is not so readily conveyed. Rory the Polar Bear (also Grover) offers us as an explanation of global warming, and he might as well have offered us nothing. Using a whiteboard and marker for his demonstration, one expects that his diagram will be enlightening, a clear and simple visual reference; instead, he merely draws a 'greenhouse' and squiggles on it whilst explaining the process verbally. This is a wonderful opportunity to teach the children about the planet itself in a focused and particularised environment, where empathy and emotion can coincide with intellect and reason; erase this initial drawing, now that the similarity has been understood, and draw the ozone layer and the rays of light that it has trapped within it. Again, there seems here to be a certain resistance to elaborate, replaced by oftentimes needless campy dances and quirky one-liners.
Three separate groups of children (nine altogether) expressed that whilst they “enjoyed the performance” and “had fun”, they had no profound idea of what the story was about or what they had learned from it, and it is clear as to why this is the case, with almost totally indiscernible animal types, an underplay or subversion of negative subject matter, and a sheer lack of detail and expansion where imperative and necessary. Visual representations that serve as aids to enhance our learning are simply lacking and underdeveloped, from the lifeless puppet of Steve's dog that the actors regularly discard and leave unattended to the infinitesimal recycling logo on the cardboard box into which Birdie throws Steve's paper cup. These are important signifiers and should not be used so lightly and with such little care. We should believe and have constant confirmation that Steve’s dog is alive and thus worthy of our emotional and temporal investment, and it should be emphasised with extremity that we are not throwing Steve’s cup away but recycling it, not downplayed in this manner.
As for acting, I remain most impressed by Margaretta's portrayals of her characters. She is incredibly expressive and transformative, confident in her roles and vitalised. I would just pay better attention to diction when portraying the Mouse, as the pitch of her voice often interferes with comprehensibility. Next, Grover is wonderfully expressive in his caricatural portrayal of Cluck, but his other characters remain indistinct and uninvigorated. All other actors are adequate in their presentations, but energy and intensity are hugely lacking, generally. Also a choreographical issue, musical renditions especially lack dynamism and dimensionality, overall. As alluded to above, character profiles are limited to locked bodily positions, such as Hampton-Saint's stance of pride or Swarbrick's hunch as Buttercup, and are in desperate need of variation and vitality. Where singing is concerned, however, these performers have immaculate voices. With only a few vocal mishaps, the performers manage to maintain wonderful harmonies and crisp notes. Howarth's music and lyrics are just as efficacious, clear, catchy and well composed, communicating the ethics and messages of the play well.
Overall, this remains an endearing and well-intentioned performance with an effective storyline. However, not only aspects of the staged performance itself but also the ending of this text focus our attention too significantly on the human and diminish the extremity of and our culpability and new duties in regard to animal suffering, which is in contrast with the text's aims. Revealing that Birdie's Mother (also Swarbrick) was actually the Queen of the Animal Kingdom at the end of the performance, removes us and our responsibilities from the play altogether, focusing our attention on Birdie's closure and peace of mind. By the end, it feels as though all of the material that we have been presented, all that we have learnt was merely for Birdie's own development alone, all to enable her to find and become her true self. The focus must remain on the animals if the political agenda underlying this performance is to bare itself successfully and work upon the audience in any substantial and significant way. A mere one-time statement, "You'll help us, won't you?" does not critically engage and mobilise an audience, or make for a very successful and congruous audience integration.