January 19, 2007

Playing to Strengths


Pigs, Bears and Billy Goats Gruff

Patch Theatre Company

Dunstan Playhouse

Adelaide Festival Centre

12 January.

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

You could be forgiven for thinking that the hottest ticket in Adelaide in January is a show about homicidal wolves, goat-stalking trolls and delinquent girls purloining porridge from unsuspecting families of bears. The foyer of the Dunstan Playhouse is buzzing with kids, the auditorium by curtain time is full. Six shows have quickly sold out with no seats to spare. You can’t get in – even if you huff, and puff, and blow the house down.

This is the beginning of another good year for Patch Theatre, who under the diligent guidance of artistic director Dave Brown, have been going from strength to strength. With a strong repertoire of touring productions and a new one – Hickory Dickory Dock – premiering at Come Out in May, things are ticking well. Last year, Who Sank the Boat, a vehicle based on the stories of Pamela Allen, toured widely, playing 127 performances to audiences totaling 48,000. In 2006 Patch also received a Ruby Award for Sustained Contribution in the Arts in South Australia.

Pigs, Bears, and Billy Goats Gruff is the welcome return of a favourite piece which carries all the hallmarks of Patch works. Dave Brown often uses familiar material – the Allen stories, tales from Aesop – or, as in the case of last year’s winner Special Delivery, the eloquence of skilled physical theatre work. Patch has also always used first rate actors – Paul Blackwell, Astrid Pill, Eddie White, Dave Pidd and Bronwen James to name a few, and top order musicians such as Catherine Oates and Heather Frahn.

For Pigs, Bears and Billy Goats Gruff, the impressive talents of Eileen Darley, Jacqy Phillips, Stephen Sheehan and musician Stuart Day combine to present a medley of traditional tales and the show uses the lullaby trope of the bedtime story to frame the presentation. Designer Dean Hills has created a simple décor of window frames and rustic furniture to fit the needs of the three bears’ breakfast as well as the throne of the frog princess and the domain of the wolf, the chef, the thief and their cooking pot. His costumes in bright pink checks and peasant smocking, are warmly dipped in peaches and cream tones by lighting designer, Dave Green.

The stories unfold with unfussy fluency, no hamming and flouncing and conspiratorial winks to parents over the children’s heads. The Three Pigs story is neatly narrated by Eileen Darley, performing some of the action while Jacqy Phillips adds accordion and Stuart Day his own piano score. Stephen Sheehan’s wolf has an amusing  Weimar cabaret accent and the audience robustly accepts his dastardly finagling (and the grim fate of little pigs One and Two) full knowing that wolf-in-the-pot is the inevitable soup du jour. The continuity works well  to the Billy Goats Gruff, with Stuart Day providing  delicious Darth Vader Troll voice FX as well as fiddle and ukulele hoe-down music, while The Three Bears manages well with the sole presence of one very put-out little Baby Bear.

The Frog Princess, the zaniest of the stories, tests the patience of the smallest in the audience as the show passes the forty minute mark – and the bedtime fade-out finale doesn’t quite allow the audience one last hurrah, or the actors the curtain call they well deserve. But these are quibbles. This is children’s theatre of excellent standard, delightful in its simplicity and refreshing in its understatement. It is often said that young audiences deserve the best but rarely get it. With Patch Theatre’s accomplished cast and Dave Brown’s well-judged production, the exception rules.

“A Welcome Return” (Patch Theatre) The Adelaide Review, No.308, January 19, 2007, p.11.

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