Our host is making a list and checking it twice. Father Christmas, you presume? Not at all. Madame Ranevsky greets the young audience for this show which plucks its landscape, and borrows some of the spirit, from The Cherry Orchard.
It’s not exactly Chekhov for preschoolers. Instead, the story springs from the estate owner’s reluctance to abandon her beloved garden. Her bags are packed and the train’s whistle can be heard but she decides to have one last play with its creatures, including a chipper velvety mole with pink spectacles.
Aimed at under-fours, the show has a design by Edwina Bridgeman that captures the intimate delight of a homemade den. In this space (shoes off, please!), all four walls are sheets, the floor is carpeted and we sit on plush molehill-style beanbags. A handstand by Nikki Warwick, playing Madame Ranevsky, miraculously leaves her dress on the floor, forming another mound. Bridgeman scatters circular shapes across the set: the wheels of an upturned barrow, the ribbon- and tulle-tied hoops suspended from the ceiling and a huge glowing moon.
Using simple materials – a length of cloth, a jumper, a jumble of wool – Warwick conjures a bird, a hen and a lamb. Puppet designer and director Marc Parrett’s creations include a family of iridescent butterflies before we meet the bobble-hatted mole who is every bit as inquisitive as Parrett’s irrepressible rodent for the Egg’s 2019 treat Squirrel. As Warwick takes him scuttling about the audience, sniffing their socks, the children admire his wiry whiskers and oversized paws.
These interactions are handled with joy and kindness by Warwick, a co-creator of the show, which is directed by Nik Partridge and has dramaturgy by Kate Cross. Karla Shacklock gives Warwick some cheery choreography in a tight space. The mischief is boosted by the folk dance within Alex Vann’s score which also adds layers of wistfulness as the show touches on themes familiar to this youngest of audiences: saying goodbye, moving house and dealing with change as well as the fun of sharing traditions.
This mole is crafty in more ways than one – Will Burgher’s lighting signals a shift to underground tunnels, full of twinkly ornaments made with his own paws. Children may well leave this delightful show wanting to make their own Christmas decorations from the findings of a wintry walk outdoors.
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