It’s traditional to begin reviews of children’s plays with a reference to the 10-year-old child co-opted to provide expert opinion. Lacking such a companion at Jacqueline Wilson’s Midnight, I had to rely on a former children’s librarian who was as puzzled as I was that an adaptation of an author known for dealing with contemporary problems should seem so resolutely old-fashioned.
As for the ten-year-olds around us, they certainly passed a pleasant couple of hours, mostly listening attentively, quite often genuinely amused, but registering almost zero in squeals of delight and gasps of horror or amazement – in short, a distinctly three-star reaction.
However, it holds up on the page, the story is extremely flimsy as a theatrical narrative. In director Vicky Ireland’s adaptation for Watershed Productions, all that has happened half-way through Act 2 is that we have been introduced to Violet, her dysfunctional family and her two sources of inspiration and escape: the fantasy novels of Casper Dream and her new glamorous friend Jasmine. The scenes that form some sort of resolution for Violet (in fantasy and reality) are much the best in the play, but arrive very late.
The production seems pitched at a smaller theatre than Leeds Grand – oddly, because much of the tour is to similarly large traditional theatres. Not all the words get across to Row P of the stalls, but more importantly much of the magic is left on the other side of the footlights. There is frequent and imaginative use of puppets for fairies, doubles of the family, etc., but lack of visible detail reduces the impact. Only Steven Markwick’s music really works in establishing a half-way house between reality and fantasy.
The three scene-shifters/puppeteers/bit-part players/ASMs (Rosie Armstrong, Alex Scott Fairley and Samantha Nightingale) sum up the cast of Midnight; hard-working, skilful, well-drilled, with the occasional delight (like Violet’s dopey class-mates) and plenty of effects that nearly come off (such as the funny walks and dances that became increasingly tiresome).
Sarah O'Leary convinces as Violet without fully involving us in her problems and Rebecca Santos and James Camilleri look just right as Jasmine and Violet’s brother Will. The most entertaining acting comes from Joe Cushley whose relish of Dad’s cheerful crassness is complemented by his winning playing of Casper Dream’s only scene.
There are plenty of positives to be found in this production. In retrospect, for instance, it is surprising how many important issues are raised sensitively and intelligently: those contemporary problems do get an airing after all. It all remains, however, distinctly low-key.