Brief Encounter With ... Oliver BirchDate: 3 December 2012 West Yorkshire Playhouse’s children’s show in the Courtyard Theatre is, for the seventh successive year, the work of writer Mike Kenny and director Gail McIntyre. Sleeping Beauty is, as usual, an adaptation of the sort of folk tale that often appears in the form of pantomime at this time of year, following on at the Playhouse from Aladdin and Jack and the Beanstalk. But these productions are definitely not pantomimes, but children’s theatre, as Oliver Birch emphasises.
Oliver Birch is co-Artistic Director of en masse, a theatre company for children and young people which produces original work, written and composed by Oliver, directed by Amy Leach. Founded in 2002 for a visit to the Edinburgh Festival, en masse picked up two Fringe First awards and is still going strong, though with plenty of time off between projects for Oliver to pursue his free-lance career as actor/composer. And that’s what brings him to West Yorkshire Playhouse for the second year running to work on the Christmas play. His enthusiasm for Sleeping Beauty is immediately evident:
“Jack and the Beanstalk was great, but this one is better. The format, traverse not end on, suits Mike and Gail’s style better. Their work is inclusive – it’s all about the audience being involved in the story. The story has more to it than Jack and the Beanstalk – more dark moments, more beautiful moments, more moments of mystery and atmosphere. And we’ve got a cracking cast.”
One specific area in which the current cast excels is the number of talented actor/musicians. Two of the cast are graduates of the dedicated actor/musician course at Rose Bruford College and Oliver responds to my question about his brief as composer by expressing his delight in the cast’s musical abilities:
“When I did Jack and the Beanstalk, I’d seen Aladdin and so I knew the sort of music Ivan Stott had done before me. We didn’t have so many great actor/musicians as we have this year. We had a piano on stage because we needed an instrument that could fill the space when there were lots of characters on stage. There’s no piano this year and my brief is simple: write catchy songs and underscore the action to create atmosphere. Between the five actors we’ve got guitar, mandolin, bass guitar, drum kit on a pram, tubular bells, two accordions, flute. Four of the five of us play bass guitar in different songs, we have an amazing percussionist who plays everything – and everyone sings!”
As for the script, when I mention that Mike Kenny is the dominant figure in children’s theatre in Yorkshire, with plays running at both Leeds and Sheffield, Oliver reminds me that he is reputed to be the most performed children’s playwright in the world and is ready to explain why he’s so good:
“He has such an instinctive understanding of how children see the world. The scripts are very spare, don’t explain much, they don’t over-talk. You get very distinct story-telling and the stories are simple and funny and fast. They don’t pander to children, they don’t over-complicate, they talk directly to children – and I don’t think many children’s writers do that.”
Mike Kenny’s plays typically preserve the essence of the story while offering an original way into it. So what is his special take on Sleeping Beauty?
“These shows are story-telling shows, so you start with characters who are outside the story who tell it – like the chickens last year. This year the five of us are playing nannas and it has a sort of Russian flavour. It was inspired by the Eurovision Song Contest, the Russian entry, with the Babushkas. It’s the Nannas looking after the baby, very warm and twittery and funny, and then they tell the story.”
It sounds like fun and, as Oliver suggests, unlike pantomime where adults and children laugh at different elements (often weighted too much towards grown-ups), part of the magic of the Mike Kenny-Gail McIntyre plays is that the different generations share the enjoyment of the same things.
Sleeping Beauty premieres on 7 December and runs until 19 January, 2013.
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