Upon walking into Caedmon Hall in Gateshead, I already felt as though I had been transported into some alternative reality. There were bits of flotsam and jetsam scattered around the stage, with a large wooden structure in the centre which appeared to be some kind of armoire with a treehouse on top. I was prepared for something dark and magical to unfold…
We are introduced to the cast, a group of underprivileged kids in a children’s home set in a fictional version of Tyneside. Orphaned, troubled and with not a lot to look forward to, January Carr and Erin Law decide to escape the humdrum of their daily lives, which includes being patronised by a do-gooder teacher (Sarah Kemp). They hatch a plan to go off on a makeshift raft down the river, desperate for adventure and freedom. They are followed by hapless Mouse, who talks them into taking him with them. Their trip doesn’t go exactly to plan, and they end up on stuck in the Black Middens mud.
A foreign, mysterious girl appears to help them, wide-eyed and full of wonder – Heaven Eyes. She is Swedish and her accent is strong and mysterious, emphasising the fact that she comes from a different world to the other kids. (She gets the wrong end of the stick when the others introduce themselves and ends up calling January “Nowt” which provides some nice comic moments). Her axe-wielding, Fray Bentos beef-eating caretaker Grampa arrives and is apprehensive about the children, and extremely protective of his granddaughter. He also hides a dark secret buried deep in the Middens Mud…
Lawrence Neale was perfectly cast as January, who is adventurous and optimistic at the start, then becomes more aggressive and cautious as time goes on (his emotional monologue really brought home the abandonment issues faced by children in care). Erin was played with great spirit by Natalie Ann Jamieson, whose positivity and warmth shines through despite losing her mother very young. Mouse’s clumsy and affable nature was played with great physicality and comic timing by Robert Nicholson. Maria Lindh brought a real sense of wonder and childlike innocence to Heaven Eyes, who has to discover a dark hidden secret about her own identity. Paddy Burton brought real Northern grit to the character of Grampa, who will do anything to protect Heaven Eyes from the outside world.
The adult characters were cautious and judgmental, a realistic counterpoint to the sense of wonder and adventure of the children. Sometimes I forgot that adults were playing children, such was the quality of the acting. I kept thinking about appreciating the small things whilst watching the play unfold, in Heaven Eyes’ world of treasures found in the mud, with Milk Tray and Midget Gems as treats.
Alison Ashton’s fantastic set was central to the play, with characters leaping up to the top of the impressive “lookout point” when scared or looking to hide. A screen was also used effectively to tell the sort of Erin and her mother. There was also very realistic puppetry courtesy of Alison McGowan and perfectly matched lighting (by Kevin James) and atmospheric music (composed by Ken Patterson).
The Theatre Sans Frontieres has assembled a talented company to realise David Almond’s novel. We are lucky to have the TSF based in the region, which brings culturally rich and diverse theatre to audiences across the UK and abroad. Both children and adults will enjoy the play, and will find themselves transported to another world for a while.