Writer: Georgia Christou
Director: Stef O’ Driscoll
Reviewer: Jay Nuttall
New writing theatre company Paines Plough continue their tradition for programming children’s theatre in their incredible pop-up theatre space, The Roundabout. Landing like a space capsule in Ordsall Park the theatre in the round is an exciting place to enter for adults, never mind children. So to go on an adventure in into an alien world inside an alien-looking pod is pretty fantastical.
How To Spot An Alient reads quite similar ground to Paines Plough’s previous work for a younger audience a few years ago. Dennis Kelly’s Our Teacher’s A Troll in 2014 of a monster lurking within human form had a very similar concept and style. Twelve-year-old Jonjo and Jelly’s mum mysteriously disappears one night without a trace. Like Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events the children are packed off to a strange and long-lost relative. Aunt Leena may put a roof over their heads but sets strange rules including not thinking for themselves, never leaving the mirrorless house and engorging on banal television. Oh, and never ever go in the attic. It’s not long before the children begin to realise that their Aunty may be more extra-terrestrial than extra maternal.
This is a production that really goes on an adventure. Aimed at an audience of 5+ it is fast-paced and very funny and rooted in great, simple storytelling. The actors work hard to engage the audience of all ages from the start. Children Jelly (Charlotte O’Leary) and Jonjo (Jack Wilkinson) bicker and argue like any brother and sister throughout whilst fighting their evil ‘Aunty’ (Katherine Pearce) who fights to keep the alien creature inhabiting her body inside her skin. We are warned at the beginning that it is not a story for the faint-hearted. The actors have enormous fun bounding about the stage with choreography in perfect synch with stage manager and technician Caitlin O’Reilly who becomes the fourth member of the cast. The Roundabout’s technical capability really comes into its own with its impressive LED lighting and soundscape marking out scenes and transforming us from one location to the next – including into outer space and into spaceships and space taxis. The technical rehearsal for this show must have been astronomical!
Georgia Christou’s script is very witty as the children battle first of all, to uncover their Aunt’s secret identity and then as an adventure story as we join them in disguise as they venture to another world. The play touches upon a few themes such as facing up to yourself and trusting in your instincts. It has a dig at the passiveness of children (or all of us) sat like zombies in front of screens but, most of all, it is a fantastical adventure story.
It is great to see Paines Plough continuing their programming of children’s work within their touring repertoire. It’s not dumbed-down given the fact there is no scenery or set. It is exciting storytelling at its best.