Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
Until May 24
Saltbush – Children’s Cheering Carpet
Seen at Festival Theatre Studio, Edinburgh
Run ended, touring until May 24
Reviewed by Mark Brown
A play about a weather forecaster doesn’t promise to be a particularly exciting evening’s theatre. The prospects look brighter, however, when one learns that Pressure, the new play by actor and writer David Haig, focuses upon the crucial role played by Scottish meteorologist Dr James Stagg in the days immediately prior to the D-Day landings in June 1944.
The drama is set entirely in Stagg’s hastily assembled office in the Allied headquarters in southern England. It traces the events which led to the Scotsman’s crucial advice – which was ultimately accepted by General Eisenhower, who was in charge of the invasion – that the D-Day landings be postponed from June 5 to 6, on account of the predicted weather conditions.
Co-produced by Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre and the Chichester Festival Theatre, directed by the excellent John Dove and starring Haig himself as Stagg, the production is as solid and reliable a piece of theatre as one is likely to see. From the neatly structured script, to the assiduously naturalistic set and the uniformly strong performances, it is the epitome of the nicely staged “well made play”.
However, for all its strengths, the production is almost too neat. The conflict is provided, primarily, through the professional disagreements between Stagg and the American meteorologist Colonel Irving P. Krick; but the latter is too much of a swaggering, over-confident stereotype.
The love interest (a decidedly restrained affair between Eisenhower and British military “dogsbody” Kay Summersby) and the dramatic back story (Stagg’s wife in a difficult labour) are built into the play with similarly sturdy obviousness.
As a theatre work about a politically significant disagreement between scientists, Pressure doesn’t come close to Michael Frayn’s post-Second World War nuclear drama Copenhagen. Haig’s play is an enjoyable and informative night out, but it doesn’t cook up much of a storm.
Interestingly, Saltbush – Children’s Cheering Carpet, touring as part of the Imaginate children’s festival, is far more elemental than Haig’s meteorological play. Created for children aged four to eight, the show is an impressive and ingenious combination of modern technology with the traditions of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures of Australia.
The “cheering carpet” of the show’s title is a huge white performance space which is transformed by the series of exquisite computer-generated animations which are projected onto it. From a river, which the children in the audience are invited to cross on giant water lilies, to a road in a busy city, and the cracked red earth of a baking desert, we are taken on a journey which connects us with both the land and our ancestors.
Created by Insite Arts (Australia) and Compagnia TPO (Italy), the piece boasts an exceptional, three-strong cast; Aboriginal performers Jada Alberts and Rosealee Pearson, and Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander Sonny Ray Townson. They tell a simple story by means of narration, dance, movement and music (from live playing on evocative clapsticks to recorded didgeridoo). The resulting theatre work has a beautifully spiritual dimension.
The cast is led by Alberts, a superb performer (and acclaimed emerging playwright). Moving with tremendous grace through the cleverly represented Australian landscape, she ushers the young audience onto the carpet at key stages in the journey.
Of course, young children are themselves forces of nature, and sometimes less predictable than the elements. However, Alberts proves herself admirably capable in the face of unexpected interventions in her storytelling.
By the time the piece comes to its end, with children and adults lying under a star-spangled night sky, one knows one has encountered a very special piece of children’s theatre.
Tour details for Saltbush – Children’s Cheering Carpet can be found at: imaginate.org.uk
These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on May 18, 2013
© Mark Brown