The full title of this play is: Captain Flinn and the Pirate Dinosaurs: The Magic Cutlass
This was definitely a weak performance, from both a conceptual and executional standpoint. Whilst certain visuals and ambiences created in this musical are powerful and impressive, these remain practically the only elements of interest.
With very little presence, beyond that naturally camp and flamboyant air which we immovably associate with drag queens and pantomime dames, Miss Pie (Mark Middleton) is the first character to be presented to the audience, leaving the stage and wandering around the tent to greet and mingle. Whilst Middleton definitely retains a certain degree of wit, with his quick-fire and readied responses to children’s statements and questions such as “You’re a boy!” or “Why are you wearing a wig?!”, it is energy, vitality and specificity of character that Middleton distinctly lacks here. Despite his heightened voice, not demanding a particular amount of effort or thought, there are few idiosyncrasies that particularise and define this character for us.
This all worsens when Miss Pie is called back to the stage to begin introducing the play. A mixture of fallible writing and lacklustre characterisation, this introduction is flavourless, humourless and cricket-inciting, engendering no audible laughter from the audience on the afternoon I attended this performance. This lack of enjoyability is later accentuated by the absence of successful transformativity between characters, an issue not unique to Middleton but particular to the entire cast…more on that later.
The character of Miss Pie conjures a very particular style of theatre that is not congruous with the rest of the material of this performance whatsoever. It feels as though theatre company Les Petits took inspiration from stock characters –– indeed, from arts such as pantomime or drag –– and imagined that this would be a sure-fire way to invoke joy in young audience members, but this does not consider this character’s significance, relation and coherency [or, rather, lack thereof]. In fact, I think the entire narrative of a primary school production should be omitted completely. It adds absolutely nothing to the text and only complicates our reading of the two worlds, these being ‘real’ world in which Miss Pie resides and the world of the dinosaurs. It is not made clear as to what relationship these worlds bear to one another or what is real and what is not, and this is too complex a layer to add on last minute, with Miss Pie attempting to cover up her pupils’ disappearance.
I say that Miss Pie is the first character to be presented to the audience, but Middleton is not the first performer. Throughout the performance’s highly conspicuous setup — I fail to understand why this was not already set up before the audience enter… — performers are clearly visible from either side of the thrust stage. In fact, the entire backstage area is on show, and this seems to be deliberate or, at least, unapologetic, given the set design (Zoe Squire). This is an issue that persists throughout the entire performance, utterly obliterating illusion, especially in scenes using shadow theatre, the [in]efficacy of which I shall detail shortly. How effects are achieved is exposed, dampening them considerably, and visible costume changes lessen the believability of characters.
On the subject of performers, characterisations were harshly similar, with the only real variations being within lines or in the characters’ statuses and relationships within the world of the play. As mentioned before, there was very little transformativity amongst the cast, with Stephan Boyce being [not strong but] the strongest in this respect, and this especially became a problem when multi-roling occurred. The different performers’ takes on the characters were utterly dissimilar, and actors were unable to portray their exactitudes, a good example of this being Middleton’s vs Boyce’s interpretation of the brachiosaurus. Diction was also a massive problem across the cast, particularly during songs, though this was not so much an issue for Ellie Pawsey. For the most part, it was a struggle to understand any of the lyrics.
The performers’ use of space was also questionable. In fact, overall topography was incredibly poor and ill-conceived. Not only was the naturally slightly less visible material, such as the use of small puppets or shadow puppets, performed too far Upstage or too far Downstage, further complicating visibility, but delivery remained imbalanced to one side in particular, Stage Left. It was rare to have any action, if not fleeting or ill-weighted, delivered to the audience Stage Right. This includes both musical numbers and action during dialogue, audience address or asides.
On a more positive note, however, I will say that performers did possess relentless energy and vitality, even Middleton when not performing as Miss Pie. In this way, it is not necessarily the capabilities of the performers themselves that I have an issue with but with direction (Hal Chambers) and, more intrinsically, with the writing of their characters. The text for this performance is especially fruitless, both unfunny and unrewarding. It is dull, repetitive and relies far too much on puns, heavily overusing them. This is particularly erroneous given that puns should, indeed, be intended for a maturer audience, given that the appropriate and here necessary ability of abstract thinking does not develop amongst young people until the age of eleven at the very earliest. These puns are hence highly unfruitful from their very concept onwards. It is clear that the text is desperately attempting to be comedic, yet jokes and gags just fall flat consistently. The same type and style of material is used over and over again, and this often has an effect on the intrigue as far as structure is considered, especially when the dinosaurs’ entrance is imminent.
When the dinosaurs are due to enter stage, lighting states (lighting by Matt Leventhall) change drastically; crescendoing, dramatic music (composed by Jack Graham Thomas) plays; and the sound (also designed by Graham Thomas) of dino-stomping echoes around us. These moments, ironically, are extremely impressive and show great artistic promise, but they do become rather overused, as this occurs thrice. It is also a shame that the lead-up here is greater than what we are finally presented. This is never ideal.
That being said, the T-Rex’s costume (costumes designed by Zoe Squire) is rather sublime. A humongous presence on stage, this costume is particularly mesmerising. However, as previously mentioned, lack of backstage concealment meant that costume changes were highly visible, and so any favouritism towards this character would be immediately thwarted in the direct and concretised knowledge that this is really just a performer under a piece of cloth. On top of this, as though illusion could not be broken any further, there was a gaping hole in the back of the costume, exposing Middleton’s legs.
Overall, there was very little effort to conceal human physicalities beyond this example, the most irritating case being the animation of the brachiosaurus. Ventriloquism, or a certain physicality that presents the puppets as significant focal points, is best with puppets like these; otherwise, it is quite distinctly a puppet head controlled by a talking human. This was emphasised in this performance by the sheer lack of movement from the brachiosaurus puppet beyond its mouth, meaning that most movement actually came from actors — though this was more the case for Middleton’s animation. Children are not as easily fooled as one may desire to think, and this is highly worth noting for this musical. It seems, however, that this lack of care towards exposing the puppeteer behind the puppet is somewhat deliberate, with Pawsey, when portraying Pearl, states that she and her triceratops character have never seen each other “face-to-face” before, a metatheatrical joke considering that Pawsey has been playing the role of the triceratops up to this point. This metatheatre is most uncalled for and unseemly. All in all, costumes and puppet pieces ranged in quality, from this rather cogent giant T-Rex costume to the strap-on wings to represent a pterodactyl. There was a lack of colour and overall visual intrigue in these puppets, and the lighting and set did not complement this at all, I must admit.
On the note of set and tech, I shall now return to the shadow box at the back of the stage. Used both as such and as a screen for projections, this is a dynamic item by nature, yet this was not at all used to its full potential. Firstly, there is the problem of the size and placement of the box. Placed far Upstage, the box is relatively difficult to see, particularly when smaller items are presented upon it. Then, the shadow puppetry was rather mediocre. The introduction of the pirate dinosaurs, with just a rigid claw cast onto the screen, was pitiful, and, as I wrote above, how any shadows were cast was revealed in the lack of backstage concealment — a problem by which it must now [hopefully] be obvious that I am particularly irked.
However, the diving shadow sequence is absolutely divine. This is a very mesmerising — if a rather tiny and short-lived — display and demonstrates imagination, dynamism and comedy. The sea-life puppets that follow are just as magical. I am just irked once more by the topography puppeteers follow, with a once-again imbalanced stage and with human physicality being far too exposed, most notably with the hermit crab. Projections, though irritatingly simplistic, were just about sufficient for this performance, however.
A final note on music. If somewhat unoriginal in terms of overall sound, music was the most impressive feature of this performance. It was very well composed and sufficient in suspense and drama. Lyrics were more doubtable and repetitive, however, and not in a necessarily catchy way, but these nevertheless retained the vitality of the music and complemented theme.
Overall, this is a highly unbefitting performance. Besides some impressive sensory elements, those which solely increase my rating, there is very little to take away from this performance. The design of props, of music and lighting, those features which extend from and complement the dramatic text itself, are those that render this performance watchable and somewhat enjoyable, but there is very little quality and intrigue to be had in this performance. Sitting on the furthest row with a good sight of plenty of child audience members, I can bravely say that I did not see a single smile or laugh from a single child. In fact, one child even stated that they were bored, and another that they had “no idea what’s going on”.
“A performance professing to do a lot and verily doing incredibly little.”
Photography Credit: Gail Harland.