Richard Medrington, of Puppet State Theatre Company, is disarmingly frank: there are no hobbits, elves or dragons in this Tolkien tale. Nor – unlike the company’s globally successful Man Who Planted Trees – are any puppets involved. Instead, for audiences aged 10 + there is unhurried story-telling that brings a wistful charm to complex issues of truth, beauty, duty and creative aspiration. The nondescript Niggle is a painter and (like Tolkien) an inveterate procrastinator. Can he ever achieve anything of artistic value when the needs of others, especially his whining neighbour Parish, keep interrupting his brush-strokes, and the long journey that can’t be avoided looms ever closer…?
Tolkien’s writing is open to various readings – does it echo the niggly perfectionism that beset each stage of The Lord of the Rings? He disliked the 1939 story being tagged as allegorical, but there is an undeniably spiritual/philosophical dimension to Niggle’s experiences – that ‘long journey’ takes him out of life to a kind of work-house purgatory, and thereafter to a verdant paradise where his erstwhile obsessive painting of the Tree becomes a joyfully living reality. Medrington, in agreement with director Andy Cannon, doesn’t labour any one approach. Rather, he ties Niggle’s tale into his own family history through an affable pre-amble that details relatives grievously affected – like Tolkien – by two world wars. Their belongings subsequently filter into the narrative as occasional props. The essence and energy of the performance, however, is in Medrington’s own gentle affection for the words. He voices the various characters with subtle shifts of accent and pitch – never over-egged – while a vividly evocative soundscore by Karine Polwart and Michael John McCarthy is a further reminder of what rich dimensions the arts bring to our everyday lives.
By Mary Brennan, published in The Herald 18th April 2016