My date for The House at Pooh Corner was a four-year-old whose primary language is Turkish. Just before I picked Eren up, along with his dad, he’d had a meltdown. And, despite these challenges he liked the show, which makes my review more or less irrelevant, but I enjoyed it too.
Virtually all of the text in Betty Knapp’s adaptation comes directly from two books by A.A. Milne and, if you’ve read them, you’ll be familiar with the stories: Pooh and Piglet build a house for Eeyore, Tigger tries to find something he likes to eat, Rabbit schemes to scare Tigger into being less bouncy, and Owl’s house crashes down in a storm.
The pleasures, of course, flow from the gently observant text — when Pooh finds condensed milk at Kanga’s house, he drinks it secretly because something tells him that Tigger probably won’t like it — and from the skill of the delivery. There are two great things about this version: Pooh and his friends are all puppets that look like big stuffies, and Christopher Robin is played by a series of eager kids who are pulled from the audience.
The manipulation of the puppets is humble and effective. I particularly appreciated a sequence in which Pooh walks into a strong wind, for instance, his purposeful steps created by a team of three puppeteers. Holding tight to Pooh’s hand, Piglet flaps in the gale behind him.
And the convention of bringing kids onto the stage to dress up as Christopher highlights the playful interactivity of the event. To involve as many of us as possible, some of the puppets even take trips through the audience, passed from one hand to another. The one downside of the audience pariticipation is that all but one of the kids who play Christopher are basically used as props: they just stand there while the actors supply Christopher’s voice. The first volunteer actually gets to do something, which is much more fun.
Still, the three professional adult performers in this production are all charming and they’re gently confident with the kids. That’s especially true of Victor Mariano, who manipulates both Piglet and Tigger: the fun that he’s having with his young scene partners sets exactly the right tone. Advah Soudak respects Eeyore’s negativity, which is the key to making it funny, and Tom Pickett brings out the innocence in Pooh’s selfishness.
In the theatre, Milne’s work can be a tough sell, based as it is in philosophy and wordplay: early on, for example, Pooh calls on Piglet and, when Piglet doesn’t answer his door, Pooh assumes that Piglet is out but, when the little pink guy shows up, he says that he, Piglet, is in his house, so Pooh must be the one who is out. The day that I saw House at Pooh Corner, the sequences that feature Tigger worked the best because they’re the most physical, and the abstract opening and closing passages, in which A.A. Milne introduces himself and Christopher Robin contemplates leaving his friends behind, were the least successful.
Eren told me that the singing was his favourite part. (Cathy Nosaty composed the songs.)
Design, of course, is hugely important in kids’ shows. Throughout the performance, Eren kept asking his dad about Brad Trenaman’s dynamic lighting design. Barbara Clayden has clothed the puppeteers in handsome Edwardian garb. And the best moment in Shizuka Kai’s set design comes when audience volunteers tear down the fabric walls of Christopher Robin’s bedroom to reveal the trees of the Hundred Acre Wood.
At one point, when Eren, who’d never seen a play before, thought something was particularly hilarious, he glanced quickly at me to share the joy of the moment, then returned his riveted attention to the stage. “Aha,” I thought. “Theatre just got another one.”
THE HOUSE AT POOH CORNER Adapted from A.A. Milne’s writing by Betty Knapp with revisions by Kim Selody. Directed by Kim Selody. A Carousel Theatre for Young People in association with Presentation House Theatre. At the Waterfront Theatre on Sunday, March 1. Continues until March 29. Tickets.
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