By Emily Oldfield
A one-man show telling the story of Puss in Boots came to the stage of Hulme’s Z-arts Centre last weekend. Presented by Lyngo Theatre, the performance formed part of the 2017 Manchester Children’s Book Festival programme.
The classic tale of a cat who realises he can walk and presents himself to the king was, in this version, seen from the point of view of the owner of the cat – played with great energy by Cbeebies’ Patrick Lynch. There was also a free art cart before and after performances allowing the young people to interpret what they see.
Initial focus on Lynch’s character, a mill worker, allowed the young audience to look to him also as narrator, a welcome source of storytelling. The use of a single raised and sloped area as a stage was particularly notable, increasing the intensity and visibility of the opening scene in which the miller is floundering around in the flour – to great comic effect for the children.
Lynch has mastered the art of keeping his comedy silly and family-friendly, rather than farcical. The sloped stage allowed his body to slip and slide and he worked with this movement throughout the performance to keep things animated but never excessive.
Other examples of where movement was used to keep attention on the stage – showing key awareness in keeping a young audience occupied – was when Lynch became the arms of a windmill and also doubled-up as puppet master, managing to control a mouse, dog and cat all at once for an entertaining ensemble of animals. For a one-man show, it certainly was animated and the absence of other actors did not detract from the fun.
The introduction of cat as a puppet was potentially symbolic as it suggested to the children that it isn’t size or stature that makes people significant in life. Rather, it is their eagerness to get involved and their enthusiasm. Conveying moralistic potential in this way – not overtly, but through the suggestions behind actions on stage – meant that enjoyment was not compromised either.
There were nothing but smiles as Lynch clambered around the stage, rolling various fruits down it in an attempt to claim ownership of the land and the attention of a princess. Even his naming of individual items – potatoes, lemons and the rest – ensured there was an easy-to-follow aspect for youngest members of the audience. It was recommended that the show was suitable for ages 4+ and even the younger children seemed to enjoy themselves.
Even more significant, was that adults also appeared well-occupied, as the miller’s dialogue was both extensive and expressive, telling a full story alongside the actions. One parent said:
“Our whole family really enjoyed it. We found it simple yet admirably effective and we loved how the single actor engaged with the audience at various points yet still presented a full production to us.
“I have to say that, originally, I had my doubts, but they were completely blown away by this performance. There were no children attempting to get out of their seats, which seems to be the case when watching so many ‘family-friendly’ plays nowadays. It’s been part of a really fun programme of events from Manchester Children’s Book Festival. We went to the family fun day on Saturday and loved the arts network area in particular!”
As the play unfolded, the use of its staging and effects became more apparent, the use of darkness allowing the stage lighting to be intensified, for example when the ogre is introduced. In this sense, it allowed the light to convey movement and character and keep the play very much one-man.
An aspect of the play deserving particular praise was the versatility of the stage, upon which a number of trap doors were opened in order to introduce new settings: one even became a hole into the river into which Lynch tries to disappear! At first it seemed this method of introducing new settings may have been too subtle, but the audience did seem very much engaged by it. The use of clothing and the situations they conveyed was also effective without being too overt; from dusty mill-clothes to the uniform of attempting to be the Marquis.
In all, an admirable and highly animated re-telling of the classic Puss In Boots tale which also explores the morals behind authority and symbolism in a subtle way to children, whilst remaining well-balanced and enjoyable.
Manchester Children’s Book Festival continues until early July with events for the whole family to enjoy. Check out the #MCBF2017 Festival programme and follow @MCBFestival on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for the latest news and events.