Writer: Mike Kenny
Director: Gilly Baskeyfield
Music: James Atherton
Designer: Joss Matzen
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Playwright Mike Kenny and M6 Theatre Company share an ability, honed over many years’ experience, to make children’s theatre that is both simple and layered, to come at a subject from an unlikely angle, but to focus directly on what really matters.
A Tiger’s Tale is based on the story of Fenella, the Holmfirth Tiger, a fact that M6 Theatre’s website discloses, but which is kept from the young audience (suggested age range 4-11) until the closing minutes. Fenella was brought to Holmfirth by a family of circus entertainers who had been given the cub while touring South Africa and she lived with the family for ten years before her death in 1950.
Kenny’s take on this is, to begin with, a troupe of three travelling story-tellers, seeking a subject on which they can improvise their tale. The circus motif is present from the start. The entertainers’ smartly decorated wagon, with stage curtains closed, sits centre stage, then the curtains open to a jolly tune on accordion doubling kazoo, spoons and big bass drum. The father figure insists on an ordinary story, no science fiction or happy ever after, and they settle into a humdrum tale of a not-very-good window cleaner and his family who always seem to be having their tea.
But what they are good at is balancing! They form human pyramids and climb unsupported ladders in their back garden and become really well known. Then the circus offers them a tour of South Africa where they rescue the tiger cub (an embellishment of the true story) and name her Ella. Then they get tired and homesick and come back home, living an ordinary life with a tiger.
Kenny’s point, no doubt, is that what we regard as ordinary or extraordinary, as possible or impossible, is quite arbitrary. This is also a delightful, beautifully judged entertainment. Owen Gaynor and Nicola Jayne Ingram as Pa and Ma are excellent, he bringing genuine circus skills to bear, she impressing as a tolerably fierce tiger – Ella’s mother. Sophia Hatfield (Titch) brings energy and a winning personality to everything she does.
Gilly Baskeyfield’s direction unites all the elements with an apparent casualness that is really anything but. Joss Matzen’s designs are attractive, with the deployment of crates, boxes and cases to create tea tables or train carriage, or ladders to make cages, unfailingly inventive. Even the puppet of Ella as she gets older, smartly manipulated by Hatfield, is made up of found objects on the story-tellers’ wagon. James Atherton’s background music contains a real ear-worm of a melody for the South African journey, which recurs several times.
And we are never allowed to forget that these are story-tellers, puzzled sometimes, arguing sometimes, about the course the story will take – and making sure it stays ordinary. Extraordinary!
Touring Nationwide | Image: Lewis Wileman