The growth industry of new theatre pieces made from children’s books is a seasonal phenomenon. This year, after Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse at the National and Herge’s Tintin at the Playhouse – both highly imaginative productions – comes Moira Buffini’s daring adaptation of Catherine Storr’s Marianne Dreams at the Almeida.
Although slightly precious and self-conscious in its deployment of physical movement to convey a world of dreams, Buffini’s short play, which runs for 80 minutes without an interval, is an efficient and skilful distillation of the novel. Marianne is a ten-year-old girl confined to bed for six weeks after contracting a mystery illness during a riding lesson.
While sulking under the duvet, she finds a magic pencil in her grandmother’s work box and draws a house on a prairie. Her adventures in the world of her own creation form a parallel life to her own, and her recovery from illness is linked to her curative influence on the young boy, Mark, she finds in one of the bedrooms.
Mark is suffering from polio and has to wear an iron lung. But the two children – here played by fully grown pyjama-clad actors Selina Chilton and Mark Arends – break out into a fantastical landscape of colours and food and bicycle rides and resistance against the green-eyed monsters that loom in the darkness among the grey stones surrounding Marianne’s house.
For its first-ever children’s show, the Almeida has hired the impressive team of Will Tuckett, principal guest artist of the Royal Ballet, as director, Anthony Ward as designer, Neil Austin as lighting designer and Paul Englishby as composer. The stage is surrounded by chalky grey flats that slide open and operate as both a film screen and drawing board. The actors dance and cavort to a score that combines ethereal grace and scary menace.
The “real” grown-up world is represented by Sarah Malin as Marianne’s mother, Jack James as the family doctor and Siubhan Harrison as the tutor Miss Chesterfield, a far slinkier character than she is in the book. Catherine Storr, a doctor and psychiatrist who died in 2001, published Marianne Dreams almost 50 years ago, but it remains an enchanting guide to the childish imagination, here fashioned into a modest theatrical fable of some wit and flavour.
But in stressing the fervour and eagerness of Marianne’s adventure, the performance of necessity sacrifices the cool analytical descriptions of Storr’s prose. Still, this is an unusual and intriguing Christmas play, ideal for young teenage girls and their middle-class, panto-proof parents.