IT IS VERY, very rare to find something that appeals as effortlessly to children and adults as this magical show from Edinburgh’s Puppet State Theatre Company.
Too often now, we see people taking the Shrek approach to family entertainment – a simple, straightforward plot and some loveable characters for the kids to enjoy, peppered with a few knowing in-jokes to keep the grown-ups entertained. In The Man Who Planted Trees, however, the audience is completely united – everyone laughs at the same gags and everyone falls silent at precisely the same moment when things take a turn for the serious.
Performers Richard Medrington and Rick Conte make an unlikely yet effervescent double act. Medrington, the straight man, narrates a beautiful, understated version of Jean Giono’s famous story – first published in Vogue in 1954 – about a shepherd called Elzeard Bouffier who took it upon himself to grow a forest in an area of the French Alps which had previously lain barren. Conte, meanwhile, gives voice to a hugely likeable puppet called Dog, who, in a nicely-judged bit of preamble, enthusiastically agrees to play the part of Elzeard’s dog in the story.
Dog is a wonderful comic creation – he has the whole audience giggling helplessly within seconds of appearing on stage, just by saying “hello” and “hi” a few times and wagging his tail. Gradually, though, the spell of Medrington’s story starts to take hold, as we follow Elzeard through numerous hardships and two World Wars.
The drama is peppered with a host of simple but effective touches, from the wafting of smells into the audience at appropriate intervals right down to the utterly lifelike way in which the Elzeard puppet drinks a pail full of water. And for all the laughs to be had along the way, the ending, when it comes, is genuinely touching. In the performance I saw, as Medrington brought his tale to a close, I noticed the middle-aged man in the seat next to me take out a hankie and wipe a tear from his eye.