This is a piece of theatre for children from the age of 5, and tells the story of the young Moomintroll waking up during the winter hibernation and not recognising his surroundings. Everything is covered in white and everywhere is so cold. He steps outside the house looking for friends and meets a whole manner of strange creatures who bring this story to life. He witnesses the midwinter solstice bonfire, a forgetful squirrel freeze by the icy hand of The Lady of the Cold, and even nearly drowns trying to rescue one of his companions from the cracking ice. At the end of his adventure though he goes back home to Moominpappa and Moominmamma who have now themselves awoken because the Spring has arrived and they have come out of hibernation. He tells them of his adventure, and it has changed him. Moomintroll had been unable to run and be happy on his own until now, and at the end we see him doing just those things, thanks to his experiences in Moominland Midwinter.
The set design works beautifully. In essence it's quite a simple idea. A main performance space at the front, with a U-shaped 'wall' half-way back across the stage, and the back wall bare used for projecting different images and cartoon sequences onto. Some of these being very effective and others working less well. The U-shaped central panel being used as the great outdoors and front stage mainly indoors.
The story is told entirely with puppets, and the five puppet-masters do an absolutely amazing job bringing these cleverly made and delightful to watch puppets to life, not only moving them around the stage with practised ease, but also providing all the voices for them as well. The concept and design being most effective. They used large puppets when working on the front of the stage and much smaller copies of the characters when outside on the central panel adding a lovely perspective and dimension to the show. The changes between these two expertly and seamlessly contrived. Credit and praise must therefore go to set designer Tom Rogers and puppet designers Horse and Bamboo. And of course the "actors"; Peter Twose, Rachel Leonard, Mark Whitaker, Zoe Hunter and Lane Paul Stewart.
I saw this production at the same time as a school party of children from a nearby primary school, and they had brought along their reception classes, and so they were just on the cusp of the recommended minimum age for this show. Some found parts of the story a little scary, a few didn't like it, most were entertained by it, but I feel fairly certain that if they were asked afterwards to recount the story, they wouldn't have been able to. They laughed at the funny bits, were sad when the squirrel froze, and showed real concern for the moomintrolls safety when he was drowning. [An amazing and fabulously imaginative piece of theatre!]. However, since this is the age group that the production is aiming at, they should be the final arbiters on the success of this show. There were two things that I think stopped the youngsters from fully engaging with it. The first has to do with language and understanding. We do not live in a country that has long hot summers and longer, cold, dark, sunless winters. Therefore it is difficult for a five-year-old to understand the concept and need of hibernation. We also don't put the same importance on certain things as they do in lands above the Arctic Circle, and we certainly don't own bathing houses. This is something undeniably Scandinavian / Russian. These are cultural differences which were necessary to have understood beforehand. Second, some of the language used in the show was rather adult. For example, would a 5 year old know the words abyss and precipice? I really doubt it. And would they be able to understand the concept of an invisible shrew?! Even the characters names were not at all easy; Too Ticky, a Hemulin and Salome.
There was also one really quite unnerving sequence when a life-size character walks silently and menacingly across the front of the stage. The characters on stage were frightened of this character, unnamed in the programme but it sounded something like a Groat. The young children particularly on the front row were now exposed and the boundary of 'safe' had been crossed since the stage was floor level and there was nothing between the actor and the child save a metre of air. Maybe on different stages that sequence would have worked better, but on the Waterside Arts theatre stage in Sale, it proved a little problematic.
Personally I really enjoyed the presentation, and was in awe of the professionalism on display. I simply question the suitability of this production for the very young, judging from the responses from the rest of this performance's audience.
Reviewer: Mark Dee
Reviewed: 11th December 2015
Translated by Thomas Warbuton and adapted for this production by Hattie Naylor.
Produced by 'Horse and Bamboo' and 'The egg'.