Children’s theatre, much like children’s movies, is a medium that requires a degree of cross-demographic appeal. Unlike Saturday-morning cartoons, picture books or old-fashioned comics where one can simply plant the child in front of it and leave them to their own devices, plays and films generally require that an adult be in attendance as well, making it something of a necessity not to bore the poor parents. Fortunately, The Clockwork Forest is largely successful in this respect, telling a charming quest story with some endearing characters and a suitably light touch whilst avoiding mawkishness or excessively prudish sanitisation.
Indeed, the tale has the usual Grimms-like premise of orphans (does no one in the land of fairy tales have living or non-evil (step)parents?) living alone in the woods with faintly gothic overtones, and as the story progresses it involves some mild jeopardy, a vampy femme fatale, some slightly scary (invisible) monsters and the occasional, gently-handled mentions of death. It is hardly “dark” material, but it is mercifully not the Care Bears either. Coddling children excessively from basic concepts of danger, love and loss is counterproductive, especially in a climate where all manner of inappropriately violent and sexually exploitative material will be shoved in their faces by the mainstream media long before they are equipped to deal with it in any case. Good fairy tales work as training wheels of a sort, providing safe, gentle explorations of more “adult” concepts that children will have to deal with in short order.
The Clockwork Forest is a fairly straightforward tale, in which 13-year-old orphan Morton (Cameron Goodall) lives alone with his menagerie of mechanical animals (whose voices may or may not be all in his head) until the calculated intrusion of a girl named Hannah (Jacqueline Cook) prompts him to pursue her into the forest. A terrible storm destroys Morton’s house and scatters his clockwork companions, which he then sets out to recover with the help of Cuthbert (the excellent Paul Blackwell), an eccentric amnesiac he encounters along the way. Various strange and dangerous characters are met on their journey, and as their paths gradually converge with Hannah’s, Morton begins to question whether his human feelings for her outweigh his need to find the tin pets.
The script, although charming, is nothing to particularly write home about, and although it lacks any serious flaws it did seem overlong at and hour and twenty minutes, with many scenes seeming padded or even unnecessary for the advancement of the plot and themes. As such, the show did slightly drag in places, if perhaps not for the children, then at least for their designated adults.
The most appealing aspect of this production was less the material than its robust performance. The deceptively well-doubled cast of five splendid performers create a much more expansive roster, aided by highly transformative switches in costume and characterisation that very effectively obscure just how many performers there actually are. With musical accompaniment and composition by Stuart Day providing mood and some startling sound effects, a great deal of atmosphere and imaginative space is created from very little, enhanced also by some clever lighting design from David Gadsden. The set is essentially bare, with movable, jointed “clockwork trees” which frequently get repositioned and reconfigured to form different scenery, as well as the occasional set-piece getting wheeled in such as a curving bridge or a doorframe, but on the whole, space is created imaginatively, through description and action. Although not strictly innovative, this is solid, effective stagecraft that brings a story to life in a simple yet elegant fashion, and is a real joy to watch.
The Clockwork Forest may not be a singularly marvelous example of children’s theatre, but Windmill and Brink Productions have produced a work of effective, simple theatre that should be highly enjoyable to receptive children. Lacking the grand pantomime tradition of the UK, it is a good opportunity to expose kids to the wonders of live theatre, something which should be instilled in them at the youngest possible age.
Sydney Theatre Company presents Windmill Performing Arts and Brink Productions’
The Clockwork Forest
By Doug MacLeod
Venue: Sydney Theatre, 22 Hickson Road, Walsh Bay
Family Performances: Friday 12 September 7pm, Saturday 13 September 1pm & 4pm, Sunday 14 September 4pm, Saturday 20 September 1pm & 4pm, Sunday 21 September 1pm
Tickets: Adult $32 Concession/Child $25, Energy Australia Family Ticket $99 (2 adults & 2 children, additional child $20)
Bookings: STC Box Office (02) 9250 1777 / Ticketek 132 849, sydneytheatre.com.au