This is a genuinely lovely piece of work. It comes garlanded with praise from the previous two Edinburgh Festivals and rightly so. Puppet State Theatre Company have adapted French writer Jean Giono’s 1953 story of a farmer who planted a forest, acorn by acorn, transforming arid Provençal land into lush fertility, with deep respect. Manifestly a parable on the ease with which good may be done, as well as a plea to look after our world, it is also a wildly funny puppet show. I doubt whether there is a more enjoyable show on in London at the moment – for adults as well as children.
Much praise must go to Ailie Cohen, who not only directs it but also designed the set and puppets, yet this has the feel of a real collaboration between performers and technicians. The story is told by Jean (Richard Medrington) and a scruffy stick-fixated dog (Dog – with the help of puppeteer Rick Conte). All are assured performers: Richard Medrington has the kind of unpretentious style that makes an audience relax instantly, while Rick Conte is dryly witty. They wrap the story up in comedy banter, a rapport between the performers that also embraces the audience. More remarkable still is the rapport they have with their puppets – they have that attentiveness to them that marks out real puppeteers. It’s as if they are waiting to see what the puppet will do next. In Dog they do have a genuine star, individual, wise-cracking and instantly loved by every child in the audience.
There is so much to admire in this production, but when something is this good one hesitates to spoil it by giving away specifics. Suffice to say that the combination of simple yet lyrical images of striking poetic language – ‘Pools of water that overflowed on to carpets of fresh mint’ – of gorgeous scents wafted on the air and of just plain laughing a lot, makes for a truly rounded theatrical experience. An uplifting one, too. So much of our culture is propelled by the idea that we don’t have much time, yet this is quite the opposite; it has the confidence to take a leisurely pace, with time to spare. That is the point of the play, of course, that everybody has the time to make a hole in the earth and drop an acorn in.
Do try to get to The Man Who Planted Trees, whether you have a child with you or not; it’s only on at the brilliant Unicorn Theatre for three weeks before it heads off around the country, and it should book up fast. I defy anyone not to enjoy this.
Following the Unicorn, The Man Who Planted Trees travels to Yorkshire, Wales, and Ireland, returning to the Edinburgh Fringe before tour dates in Kuala Lumpur in October.
Claire Ingrams © 2008