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To Have Or Not to Have

Review: To Have or Not to Have, Little Angel Theatre London

Children’s Puppetry Festival, Little Angel Theatre

There’s just something about the Dutch theatre for children I’ve seen: it is refreshingly unusual and often deadpan funny. It’s unpatronising, totally involving and respectful to a young audience. With Tam Tam Theater’s To Have or Not to Have at the Little Angel Theatre we’re treated to a uniquely curious, completely captivating production that puts magic in the mundane and leaves us considering some really big questions.

Before it begins, we’re requested to turn off our phones and just watch the show, waiting until afterwards to talk and ask questions. We’re gently reminded that the children are quite capable of taking in the story without having it explained as it goes along. I love this, and I think the kids do too!

The stage is a large tray of sand, behind which our two performers stand. Strangely, their cast are a selection of objects that include rusty tools, feathers and a small leather bag. But in the hands of Gérard Schiphorst and Marije van der Sande they become a whole host of lively and intriguing characters.

Transformation and imagination are at the heart of the production. A pair of scissors becomes a swooping, cawing crow. A round cage pierced with feathers joins with a whisk to become another bird. It only takes a moment for these abstract objects to blend, morphing into the recognisable image of another thing. The surprise is delightful and the audience gasps out loud as they see in a new way. Some props are strange and unrecognisable, but their movements clearly suggest things we know coming alive before us: a crab, a horse. There’s great satisfaction and laughter in guessing what they might be.

This is a playful, wordless tale where characters meet and squabble over a ‘prize’, which proves to be nothing and yet everything. Castles are built, a battle takes place, yet in the end there’s no real winner. It’s a reflection on conflict and war, on ways of viewing a world built on shifting sand. But the narrative all depends on our imagination, and active acceptance of transformation and possibility. This is an exciting thought indeed.

The aesthetic of the show is impressively distinctive, with subtle use of light to complement the action. There is wonderful music throughout that takes us from themes of the Wild West to the Middle Ages, to today. It’s techno, banjo and bells, all brilliantly combined to make a magical setting and gently alter the ambiance so nothing is ever quite certain.

As promised, after the performance there is a Q&A, where the adults are as excited as the children to discuss what they’ve seen. There’s no moralising here. Everything that has been seen is to be understood on their own terms. And the use of everyday materials suggests they can easily go home and make their own story in the future. How inspiring is that?

Mary Pollanrd