Barnstorm is celebrating its twentieth year with its fifth production of work by Mike Kenny, a writer who brings positive vision, fresh inventiveness and provocative reflection to the stage for very young people.
In The Song from the Sea, Josh is the child who hears the things that the adults miss. Granddad is glued to the telly and, anyway, his ears are “too old and too tired.” Mum is preoccupied – the whine of the Hoover is all that she can hear. His sister, Elsie, has her headphones on and is in a world of her own. The underlying observation is that when you’re four or five, you’re not going to be taken seriously by the grown-ups. They may love you to bits, but they not actually paying attention.
So when Josh repeatedly urges them to “Listen!” his entreaties fall on deaf ears. When the audience is made privy to his dreams, the music (Shane O’Reilly singing counter-tenor, with a lilting, haunting quality) becomes audible. It’s the song of a dolphin and in the dream sequence Josh rides underwater with the dolphin: the combination of Galione’s blue lighting, O’Reilly’s singing and graceful puppeteering, together with Cawley’s haunting musical accompaniment, makes this a magical scene.
The child-adult axis shifts, as Josh takes it on himself to follow the music. To the bemusement of his family, he no longer pesters them about accompanying them. He has his own agenda and he enlists his granddad to go with him on his quest.
The three ‘story-tellers’ play all the parts. Josh and the dolphin are puppets. Paul Curley gives Josh his body movement and his voice, remaining fully visible, with no attempt at camouflage. Role-switches are achieved by minimalist strokes – a scarf for mum, headphones for Elsie, specs for granddad. A neutral background – speckled grey cyclorama and boxes on castors – warms to the lighting changes; cut-out houses, a bed that floats and a bus that moves, a dock-side crane and a boat that’s moored create the shifting locales, as Josh makes his way down to the sea. The fluidity of narration, combined with the simplicity of the settings allows the story to flow seamlessly.
The second sea sequence produces a tale within a tale – humans are dolphins who’ve shed their skins and lost their way on land – “the world is too much with us” - and it’s only the child who can pick up the signals (like a dog attuned to sounds above the pitch of our hearing) and find his way back to unity and harmony. The story-telling and the metaphor for lost innocence and imagination sit comfortably together.
The Barnstorm ensemble, both in acting and production, has a consistency and continuity that contributes greatly to a house-style that is lucid and engaging, not only for the target audience – in this case, 4-5-year-olds – but also the adults who accompany them.
Derek West has reviewed theatre for almost 25 years. He also edits publications for NAPD, the school principals’ national organisation.