Children provide a rich source of information for repressive regimes. The little monkeys can be relied upon to tell tales on their parents and teachers. Perhaps Writer/ Director Alison Duddle had this in mind when she aimed Little Leap Forward at a young audience. Even so the play is sufficiently challenging and stylish to be of interest to all age ranges.
Set in China the play uses the family and friends of Little Leap Forward, an eight-year old boy, to illustrate the effect upon the wider community of Mao Zedong's cultural revolution. Throughout the play flight is used as a metaphor for freedom. Little Leap Forward befriends Blue, a female classmate and they bond over an interest in kites. The highly-individual kite designed by Blue prompts Leap's mother to reveal the artistic and sensual pleasures that have been repressed by the revolution. But this deviation from the norm exposes the family to risk.
Duddle utilises styles and techniques that are appropriate to the culture and period in which the play is set. The set design by Bob Frith is inspired by the workers revolution posters of the time. It gives us a house in stark black and white with splashes of bright primary colours. The set serves also a practical purpose providing a screen for filmed inserts and a platform for puppet displays.
The story is told without dialogue, but with evocative music from Loz Kaye and Guo Yui, and a series of puppets.Duddle uses two basic types of puppet; actors operate, by hand, table top puppets about a foot or so high. As well as allowing rapid changes between scenes this gives an epic, wide-screen feel to the play taking us to see the children playing in the countryside. It also allows subtle visual comment. A classroom full of conformist pupils can be seen to be full of, literally, puppets.
The cast (Nicky Fearn, Francis Merriman, Jonny Quick and Mark Whitaker) play 11 characters by using helmet masks to become life-size puppets. This gives rise to the challenge of how to convey emotion whilst deprived of the ability to use facial expressions. The skilled cast compensate by using their whole bodies to show the full range of emotions including gawky teenaged stance or shoulders rounded in defeat.
The blank faces of the puppets also illustrate the destruction of the individual that was achieved during the cultural revolution. Unfortunately they do have an adverse impact on the story as it becomes increasingly difficult to tell the characters apart .
Despite some difficulty in distinguishing between the characters, Little Leap Forward remains a thought-provoking and moving play that will appeal to all age groups.