The wonderful Blue Elephant Theatre, Camberwell, is currently showing Mervyn Peake’s one and only play written for children, Noah’s Ark. Peake, who taught at Camberwell College of Art, has a strong connection to the theatre. Artistic director Jasmine Cullingford aims to bring a new audience to Peake’s writings whilst simultaneously encouraging fresh audiences to the theatre. Noah’s Ark is a lively children’s musical reminiscent of traditional pantomime that offers the audience a vibrant new take on what happened when Noah set sail with a host of wild animals on board.
Director Mhairi Grealis has really hit the nail on the head in terms of presenting Peake’s amusing and magical story with maturity, bags of energy and some moments of pure brilliance. Emily Wallis plays ‘Boy’, the troubled protagonist who spends the entire show trying to warn the naive Mr and Mrs Noah (Lawrence O’Connor and Kath Perry) that there’s trouble on board! Six other young performers play a whole host of animals including the bossy Mrs Goat, cowardly Lion and the villainous duo Hyena and Vulture. The detail of the characterisation and movement of the actors is precise and often very amusing. Peake has provided a wealth of character types that we can relate to and enjoy watching.
As someone who rarely enjoys musical theatre, I can absolutely say that this performance contained everything needed to convert me. The songs, although sparse, are beautifully sung, and hearing the unaccompanied harmonies bouncing around the intimate theatre space is heartwarming. Some of the music is played live on stage by the actors including Mr Noah on the guitar and even Mrs Hen plucking away at the harp. The characters are extremely likeable and the action fast-paced. The story iscoherent and takes centre stage, rather than the musical numbers. The small-scale theatre space is used exceptionally well with actors climbing into the audience from behind curtains, squeezing themselves onto the bench in-between audience members, and dancing and singing up and down the aisle stairway. During the building of the ark the audience is gently encouraged to join in with singing out a rhythm, adding an extra level of inclusiveness and fun for the younger members of the audience. How I wish that all musicals would take a leaf out of Peake’s book.
Mike Lees’ beautiful dollhouse set and ‘dressing-up-box-chic’ costume design is spectacular, and enhances the jolly atmosphere of the production. Using simple headwear and accessories (a lion’s mane, glasses for the wwl and so on), the actors move swiftly between characters giving the illusion of a much larger cast. Roller blinds, painted with a night sky background, adorn the back of the stage and allow characters to pop in and out of the action. The furniture of the boy’s bedroom doubles up as various items aboard Noah’s Ark.
All in all this is a first-class production and I can’t imagine anybody leaving this show without a big smile plastered across his or her face. Thanks to the Blue Elephant Theatre for proving that you don’t need large quantities of money and hi-tech special effects to create theatre magic. Kazoos and a pinch of imagination will do just fine.