Nobody Rides the Unicorn: theatre review

From the outset, the PuppetCraft cast encouraged a non-frontal and participatory style of theatre, asking children to sit on the floor close to the scenery.

Special mention has to go straight away to the sound and music. Sounds were created live using sampling and mixing of the strange and mysterious sounds created by one cast member in particular, ranging from odd noises made from pieces of tubing, to rumbling thunder, the chewing and munching of the greedy king, and instruments including recorders and a French horn.

Tapestries of sound were created live by layering samples on top of each other – particularly memorable moments including the barking of the hounds, the rushing of the water, and the beautiful and haunting French horn theme created from scratch. I was left with an impression of highly talented actors and musicians who wove a magical world without drawing attention to themselves – I rather liked their understated performances and humility, and the way they created a warm complicity with the children.

The end of the play, where we were invited to come and see the puppets, take photos and even have the puppet duck eat imaginary food from our hands, was lovely immersive theatre at its best and delivered with confidence and warmth.

The story itself was steeped in ancient fairy tales – the unicorn that could only be tamed by a young girl, the silly and greedy king and his creeping assistant with ulterior motives. Among these characters, all represented by expressive and striking puppets, the most beautiful was the sweet flame-haired Zoe, vulnerable and relatable, fully deserving, we all felt, of the magical escape that the unicorn offered her.

The changes of scene and of scale were all perfectly done, with highlights including the ‘zoom out’ achieved with lovely hillside pieces and a tiny Zoe and unicorn galloping in the distance.

Other unicorns were animated by mechanisms making them rear and toss their heads. Perhaps the most striking effect was the waterfall – shimmering material, light, and the rushing sound of water, leading up to Zoe’s fall, projected onto the backdrop. It was amazing how much expression an apparently expressionless puppet can achieve when well manipulated – fear, excitement, sadness, euphoria all in small movements of hands and head.

Glancing round the audience at such moments, little shining faces and eyes confirmed the effect – that there is nothing like real theatre, quality props and beautiful direction to weave a magic more beautiful than any CGI special effects can muster.

Review originally published on DigYorkshire in October 2013. As seen at Ripon International Festival 2013.

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