Was the Pied Piper evil from birth or did his villainy and bitterness result from traumatic childhood experiences? In a vibrant and engaging production, The Musician attempts to explore this question through a whirlwind of music and melodrama. Written and composed by Conor Mitchell, Cahoots NI’s exciting and original new opera for children draws upon the child spectator’s own cultural knowledge by constructing a prequel to a familiar childhood story. It documents the Piper’s boyhood up to the point where he leaves his own village and sets off for Hamelin. For those familiar with the original tale, a sense of foreboding is established from the outset as we wonder how the young and innocent boy we see on stage will later transform into a vengeful Piper.
As the Narrator (Toby Girling) tells his story, the events come to life on stage and focus on the relationships between Boy (Stuart Matthews), Girl (Verity Parker) and the Musician (Stefan Holmstrom). Set in a dismal and dreary town, aptly represented by a grey cityscape, a young and innocent orphan boy is unloved and forgotten to such an extent that the Narrator explains he does not have a name and is simply referred to as ‘Boy’. His only friend is a pet mouse, which is wonderfully represented throughout in varying shapes and forms, coming to life as a ball of fur, an actor holding a mouse head and tail, and also as a puppet. Matthews gives a worthy performance as Boy, a character that undergoes several changes from innocent victim to happy and talented musician, to bitter manipulator.
The pacing of the production is close to perfect. Following a slow and subdued opening, the original music and songs are a joy to listen to and gradually propel the narrative along. Conor Mitchell conducts with gusto, his enthusiasm so great that he sometimes distracts from the actors on stage. The strength and range of the performers’ singing voices are also particularly noteworthy with Parker as soprano, Holmstrom as bass baritone, and Girling as baritone. They capture the audience’s attention from the outset. As the story unfolds, the drama increases significantly, the characters clash, the tension builds, and the audience are swept into a world of magic and malice.
The pacing of the production is close to perfect. Following a slow and subdued opening, the original music and songs are a joy to listen to and gradually propel the narrative along.
Through exchanges between Boy and the Musician, the production raises a range of complex themes for the child spectator. Astounded by the boy’s natural ability to play tunes, the Musician muses on the potential power and danger of such talent. While he notes that “curiosity is the key to knowing” he also wonders whether the boy is the player or simply the one being played. Is the boy the maker of his own destiny, or a pawn in some larger plan? As the boy’s knowledge of music grows, so too does his power over the people in the village. Gradually he transforms into a manipulator, signified on stage by his physical growth and the development of creepy and spindly over-sized fingers. The Musician laments such abuse of power by a child that had so much potential and the production seems to suggest that with great talent comes great responsibility; when powerful skill is not controlled, disaster can ensue.
As the narrative progresses many aspects of the production become quite frightening. At one point, rats invading the stage are represented by a barrage of rodent-like sounds while the rostra under the audience’s seats begin to vibrate, making it impossible not to get caught up in the performance. The fear factor is also to the fore in the relationship between Girl and Boy. Girl is much used to standing out from the crowd, as is evident from her golden coat which is striking against the dreary background of the village. However, her taunts and failure to live up to her promises become too much for Boy who, with the help of his rodent friends, seeks revenge. The chilling screams from off-stage are followed by Girl’s re-entrance, her clothes now in shreds and covered in blood following an attack by the rats. Under Matt Peover’s direction, Cahoots should be congratulated for having the confidence to represent such frightening scenarios for children in a sophisticated manner. By having many of the events occur offstage, the attack only becomes as terrifying as the child spectator is willing to imagine.
Once again, Cahoots NI have created a thrilling piece of theatre and - at a level accessible to their young audience - are unafraid to explore complex and challenging themes.
Pádraic Whyte is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of Irish Studies, Queen’s University Belfast.