In this new piece, Puppet State Theatre takes a break from their nine-year tour of their acclaimed puppet show, The Man Who Planted Trees, to transfer JRR Tolkein’s lesser known story about creative frustration to the stage. Leaf by Niggle is a story about a painter who has to make a journey. Desperate to finish the one painting that has taken over his life’s work, he’s interrupted by constant knocking at his door.
Previous projects by the Puppet State Theatre and the other creatives involved, such as director Andy Cannon, have been directed primarily towards children. However, Tolkien’s story has taken this piece in a mature direction suitable for all audiences. While there are no elves, wizards, or dwarves, the story has a fairytale-like quality that seeps through Tolkein’s work. The ‘journey’ that Niggle eventually goes on is clearly allegorical, though the audience is left to decide how much it refers to death and how much it refers to a literal, if slightly mystical, journey. Sidestepping the easy reading of the journey as death makes the show ‘doubly, triply, quadruply’ interesting, and more deeply satisfying to watch. Perhaps the decision to exclude puppetry from the show helps this. Instead, the story relies on the images performer, Richard Medrington, builds out of the language.
With nearly thirty years of solo and cast touring experience, Richard is an exceptional story teller. He strikes a tone somewhere between the bedtime story and the kind of oral historian you get at the archetypal local pub. The simple direction of his performance, thanks to his collaboration with director Andy Cannon, is complemented by the stripped back set design absent of flats or many complicated set pieces, replicating a writer’s study dotted with memorabilia.
The production is centered around the items on the stage, a few culled from antique shops, even one miniature bicycle found for £30 on eBay, but most from Medrington’s own family attic. His relish in telling the story of each object forms a strong frame to the story. Tolkien was of the same generation as Medrington’s grandparents, a generation that lived through two world wars, and our memories of this generation are now being lost. Medrington manages to make out of their stories a gateway into Tolkien’s work and as he points out halfway through the show ‘gateways are important’.
Alasdair Anderson must be complemented, too, for his prop work further providing these gateways into the story. As each part of the story comes up the relevant prop is brought out, acting as motifs that hint at the parts of the story in beautiful simplicity. Over the simple storytelling, a wonderfully composed soundtrack complements the piece. Composers Karine Polwart and Michael John McCarthy do a good job matching the tone of Medrington’s narration.
Altogether the technical aspects combined never got in the way of the story and instead helped bring it to life on stage. The lighting design was a particular highlight, with Gerron Stewart working around the movement of Medrington and constructing a few well-timed effects, including the ending state.
The overall effect is closest to wonder at a story well told. It is difficult to fault as a production, there being little in the way of clutter. What it does best is to showcase the work of one of England’s finest twentieth-century writers with a sensitivity little known to a lot of modern adaptations. After its premiere run at the Festival Theatre Studio, Leaf by Niggle will be touring the UK, with dates listed at www.puppetstate.com