RIGHT from the outset, Kneehigh’s trademark brand of naughtiness is apparent in resetting their adaptation of Jim Dodge’s Californian tale in the depths of the company’s native Cornwall which, as Granddaddy Jake is keen to point out, is in England but not of it.
Jake himself is a shambling, whiskey swilling centenarian, played with immense energy by the craggy form of David Mynne. The play opens as he and his 18 year old grandson Tiny celebrate their joint birthdays. Calvin Dean brings both warmth and mystery to his reading of Tiny, who refuses to celebrate because of the weight of things pressing on his mind.
Magically, we are taken back in time to meet Tiny’s mother Gabrielle and his father ‘Sonic’ Johnny, and to learn of the double tragedy that has left him an orphan. Jake goes to extraordinary lengths to secure the right to adopt his grandson, but Tiny struggles to deal with the loss of his mother and begins to build barriers around himself for protection.
The feminine influence in this dysfunctional family takes the form of Fup (a duck, naturally), rescued from near demise as a hatchling by a dose of Jake’s home-brew, Ol’ Death Whisper. Fup is a sassy, wise and stabilising presence in the household.
Jenny Beare is a remarkable chameleon, playing a series of characters including Tiny’s mother Gabrielle, an over-zealous social worker, and the general party animal Dolly. She also lends an extra pair of hands to Rachel Leonard, the puppeteer who breathes life into both Fup and the young Tiny. Sarah and Lyndie Wright’s puppets are genuinely magical. It takes a conscious effort to remember that they rely on the puppeteers for their movement.
The writing is tremendously clever, paring the story down to something that genuinely works dramatically, distilling the essence of the fable as potently as Jake’s Ol’ Death Whisper. The threads of truth woven through the story’s rich tapestry keep emerging at the surface, and the sheer joy of the show’s energy is balanced beautifully with its layered messages of loss, despair, love and hope.
The action is enhanced throughout by live onstage music, from Ben Sutcliffe and Zaid Al-Rikabi. Ranging from witty set-pieces to underpinning sound effects, their contribution really adds to the sense of drive and movement, and grows out of the story rather than feeling like an accompaniment.
To dwell too much on the design would be to give away a lot of the many surprises that it has in store, but Rosanna Vize’s set is very much part of the action. From light touches, such as the building of a tiny fence, through to a grand gesture at the breathtaking conclusion, it’s a masterpiece of staging. Buster Keaton would surely have raised his hat to this.
Above all the sheer theatricality of this adaptation, storytelling remains key, and the beauty of Dodge’s original tale shines though from beginning to end. The heartbreaking battle that Tiny faces to let down his guard and live is immensely moving. As his granddaddy tells him, any fence is only as secure as its gate. When he finally finds the gate open, the audience are bound to suddenly find something in their eyes.
This is about as good as theatre gets.