Playbox Theatre, the award-winning organisation for young performers ( youth theatre group doesn't seem an adequate description somehow), is celebrating the bicentenary of Hans Christian Andersen with a three- week festival which includes a revival of these two wonderful productions playing in repertory.
?They?re both a bit dark,? warned Playbox when I told them I was bringing the grandchildren to see both shows on Saturday. No worries. They were absolutely spellbound. And so was their grandfather.
The Red Shoes, very freely adapted by Mary King and Stewart McGill from the Andersen story, was first staged in 1996 when it toured America and represented the UK the following year at a Festival of Young Circus Artists in Germany.
It has become Playbox?s signature show, with its stunning blend of dance, theatre and circus presented with extraordinary visual elan ? the costumes and lighting are fantastic.
This revival is also bound to pin audiences back in their seats, with some fine individual performances and brilliantlydrilled ensemble work. Yes, there?s a huge debt to the sort of shows staged by Cirque du Soleil (some of the music is theirs, I?d guess). But that?s no bad thing. Some of the exits and entrances need more pace, and the finales of both shows are simply not snappy enough ? you can?t really go dark leaving a performer on a trapeze.
But these quibbles represent the carping of a professional critic looking for something to moan about.
It?s easier to find things to praise ? like the way the masterminds of both shows, Mary King with Emily Jane Quash and Juliet Mary McGill, have used one of the company?s great strengths: the sheer numbers available to them.
No professional director could afford to fill the performing space with so many bodies. For instance, in Mermaid there is shoal upon shoal of young fishes (all wonderfully and differently costumed) and some of the circus routines in Shoes cram the stage with people. At times bodies are cleverly used to represent scenery ? a woodcutter?s cottage, a mirror and so on.
It means the energy, motion, and sheer dynamism can?t fail to spill over into the audience, drawing them in to an uplifting theatre experience made all the more compelling by the dark undertones of the narratives. No Disney endings here.
High, high praise too for some of the performances. Christina Newman gives a star turn as the clown figure in Shoes (again, echoes of Cirque techniques in her hilarious bits of business) in complete contrast to her meaty Mermaid role.
Luka Owen, who plays the tragic heroine of Shoes, is an excellent dancer and acrobat on top of her first-class acting skills, and the giant bouquet she was grasping as she left the Dream Factory was a fitting tribute to her performance.
A favourite with our kids was Camilla Holder, the spider-like Madame Gridare. It would be too easy to make her an out-and-out ?wicked stepmother? figure, but Camilla?s astute reading of the role also caught the tragedy of this lonely woman. Extraordinary movement from her and her acolytes as well.
And let?s hear it for Liam Bessell and Sarah Hattee as the owners of the shoe workshop. Hard roles to fill at the best of times, but to play them on stilts was even more demanding. Sarah had a complete contrast in Mermaid ? on her belly throughout as a puffer fish.
The festival runs until April 17.
You can check out www.playboxtheatre.com for full details ? musical events, Andersen stories for little ones and special menu at the Masquerade cafe (I heartily recommend the Red Shoes salad) or ring the box office on 01926 419555.
I can guarantee a fairy tale experience from these wonderful young performers.