TomtenHigh-End children’s theatre can be a tough nut to crack; I think back to a performance of 1001 Nights I saw at the Unicorn recently, in which the constant shrieking and wailing coming from the audience all but drowned out the performance on display. Fortunately for Old Saw, its production of Tomten, on for a very limited run at the Little Angel Theatre as part of the theatre’s FIRSTS festival which showcases up-and-coming puppetry talent, is hypnotically charming and hauntingly captivating enough to maintain the attention of even the most fidgety of toddlers.

Old Saw has chosen to bring to life Viktor Rydberg’s Swedish poem Tomten. Despite being written in 1881, Old Saw presents the story with such fresh imagination and beauty that it could easily have been written for modern audiences. Tomten is an elf-like creature, complete with long pointy hat and an equally long pointy beard, who visits all the farmyard animals at night. No human has ever seen Tomten but his footprints in the snow are a sure enough clue to his existence. Unlike all other life on the farm however, Tomten lives on, and sees foals turn into horses, calves turn into cows and so on. Tomten is therefore a genteel and poetic telling of the life-cycle; seasons and life may come and go, but Tomten is permanent. Indeed, life and death, summer and winter, light and dark, all of this is “stirring his ancient spirit”. This is children’s theatre with an intelligent and coherent message, akin to the recent A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings. (How much of the piece’s message is picked up on by an audience averaging 6 years old remains to be seen, however.)

Greta Clough, Mark Esaias and Tom Larkin’s puppetry is a joy to watch. They are soothing and charming, intricate and calming, as proven by the frequent gasps of delight coming from the 5-year-old girl sat next to me. Indeed, a highlight for me was witnessing how the squealing from the pigs was matched only by the gleeful squeals of a clearly mesmerised audience. Clough, Esaias and Larkin include wit and wonder in their work; note the two chickens which lay half a dozen (presumably free-range) eggs, complete with egg box. Equally delightful is the audience’s ability to meet the puppets in the foyer post-performance, with the friendly and playful sheepdog receiving most attention.

It is unfortunately too late to catch Tomten at the Little Angel, but if this is the calibre by which to measure the rest of the pieces in the season, then it is clear that the FIRSTS Festival has stumbled across some very talented children’s artists indeed.

Old Saw’s Tomten played as part of the Little Angel Theatre’s FIRSTS Festival on Friday 15 and Saturday 16 March.