“A long long time ago and far far away, but it could have been here and it might be today” sings Lauren Gilmore. These lyrics introduce the story of The Tin Soldier in this new adaptation, also enlightening the audience to a theme that runs throughout: that the messages of fairytales are universal and resonate in real people’s lives. That difference and inclusion and uncertainty and heartbreak are all around us and stories can be a way to escape, but also a way to feel less alone.
The Birds of Paradise Theatre Company have created a compelling new telling of Hans Christian Anderson’s tale, which sees it from the perspective of children with disabilities who live somewhere they call ‘The Place’, an indeterminate institution which could ring true with many different experiences. The children (who are played by very vibrant adults) read and tell the story together, playing the characters and slipping in and out of storytelling mode. This framing device is actually based on the director, Garry Robson’s, experience of visiting an ‘Internat’ in St Petersburg where “after the kids had been put to bed and the attendants had retired for the evening the kids would tell one another stories”. Robson developed the production with Olivier-award-winning-writer Mike Kenny and they chose the story of The Tin Soldier because it “featured a positive portrait of a disabled protagonist”, a rare find in children’s stories.
The production is incredibly multifaceted including puppetry, projection, songs and music. Personally, I would have loved to see these elements each being pushed further, particularly the puppetry designed by Nikonenko, but for children with their shorter attention spans variety makes for more effective entertainment. The set is made up of loads of cardboard boxes which evoke ideas of displaced people but also of possibility, during one song balloons shaped like all sorts of things seemed to pop out of them. There is a big window in the centre which is projected on as well as a screen with the subtitles. A lot of the story is acted out with the help of figurines and other set elements, which combined with some clever lighting design makes for simple and magical visual storytelling.
The production has a focus on disability, and the children in “The Place” identify with the steadfast toy tin soldier with his one leg. However, Kenny’s The Tin Soldier also touches on other social inequalities, for example, immigration and homelessness. One line that hits hard is when the toy soldier has ended up out on the street, “when you’ve got no home all of a sudden you become invisible, people don’t see you, except people looking for trouble”. It must be pointed out that there are no excessively topical jokes, no direct references to political events or figures (these days it’s a rare treat to see a show without jokes about Brexit or a certain president). This means that the production has its layers and addresses the adults as well as the children, something that any great piece of kids’ theatre should do, but does so without alienating its younger audience. The message is the same for everyone watching and is merely delivered in many different ways.
As well as being accessible for all age groups one of the most impressive and commendable aspects of the production is definitely how it caters to all abilities. Not only is it translated into British Sign Language and all the lines clearly subtitled and projected as they are spoken, but these elements are seamlessly included in the production. Simply having an interpreter at the side of the show is a very limited and often ineffective way of opening your show up to speakers of BSL, since they have to either watch the interpreter or the performers, and thus miss out. Instead, The Tin Soldier has the actors use sign language as they speak aloud, always at least one person translating what is said, which is highly effective.
There are pantomime elements thrown in, such as just the right amount of audience participation, making The Tin Soldier an intriguing mixture of a classic Christmas show for children and theatre that is defiantly making its own rules. The production is moving as well as being a lot of fun and the message is emphatic and heartfelt but feels justified in its force. Birds of Paradise are making theatre which sees disabled people telling their own stories, a crucial step towards greater understanding and equality. And one certainly feels very positive upon leaving the theatre, even if there is no perfect happily ever after. In real life, there isn’t always a happy ending, but learning to be more accepting of ourselves and of others seems a happy end in itself.