Children’s theatre reviews: A revamped fairy tale and a stone-cold classic

Hansel and Gretel as adults and a boy who befriends a stone are among the highlights of the children’s strand at this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival

 

Katie’s Birthday Party
★★★

Johannes and Margarethe
★★★★

Aston’s Stones
★★★★

The Ark, Temple Bar

There was a festive theme to this year’s season of children’s theatre at the Ark, as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival. Indeed, Katie’s Birthday Party by Mary Frances Doherty, cast the audience as guests, gathered together to celebrate Katie’s transition from childhood to adolescence, and from primary to secondary school.

Writer and performer Doherty was a youthful and energetic hostess, dressed in silver, sparkly tulle. As she nervously initiated introductions and led us in a game of Truth or Dare, she revealed the standard anxieties of this difficult, transitional age, eliciting empathy for the academic and social struggles that are killing her birthday buzz. 

Doherty delicately negotiates audience interaction, placing the preteen demographic in a slightly unnerving situation not unlike the first day of school: the challenge to their assumptions, and the room for growth, is in the form as well as the content. Katie’s Birthday Party also provides some tools for overcoming adolescent angst, including an opportunity to cast your self-consciousness off, Harlem Shake-style.

Johannes and Margarethe, a telling of Hansel and Gretel for a six-and-up audience, is a different kind of party. As the audience are beckoned in small groups into a forest cottage, there is no certainty that our hosts are who they claim to be. In fact, they are not: they are Hansel and Gretel all grown up, and, with a thrilling blend of the macabre and playful, they tell us the defining story of their childhood.

There are enough false starts to keep an audience familiar with the classic tale engaged, although perhaps there is one too many stumbles: on the occasion of my viewing, some of the young audience members seemed very insistent that a red snake (a red herring in the telling of this tale) should play a key part in the pair’s final escape from the witch’s gingerbread lair.

Gorgeously designed by Marion Hauer for Junges Ensemble Stuttgart, Johannes and Margarethe is just dark enough to fulfil the role of fairy tale, providing a safe space within the bounds of a familiar classic.

Aston’s Stones, presented by Sweden’s Teater Pero, is an original classic. It tells the story of a young boy’s fascination with stones, and children and parents will identify with the unique oddness of the boy’s new choice of companion.

Using mime, dialogue and a jazzy musical score, with Sondheim-esque qualities, it is a perfectly pitched introduction to a variety of theatre styles and storytelling techniques for three- to six-year-olds. Good news for anyone who can catch its final performances at the Ark this weekend, and at the Baboró International Arts Festival in Galway next week.

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