First published in The Times, Wednesday April 20 2016
The latest production from Puppet State Theatre Company is adapted from a little-known short story by JRR Tolkien. There’s a caveat, though. As Richard Medrington, the performer, points out in his preamble to a packed audience at the Festival Theatre Studio, this show contains “no wizards, elves or orcs.”
Doubtless this news will disappoint some lovers of Middle Earth, but the author of The Hobbit isn’t the only reason to get excited about this production. Puppet State’s previous show, The Man Who Planted Trees, scored a huge critical and popular success when it debuted ten years ago, and the company has spent much of the decade since touring the show around the world.
It has taken Medrington some 20 years to bring this particular story to the stage, and while we have come to associate adaptations of Tolkien with scale and spectacle, Andy Cannon’s production takes a pared-back approach to storytelling, that proves, over the course of 70 minutes, to be quietly effective.
In outline the tale, narrated with wry understatement by Medrington, seems an allegory for the struggles of the artist in a world suspicious of mere creativity. Niggle, a painter who has set himself the task of capturing an unusual tree, with a forest in the background, keeps being interrupted in his attempts, firstly by a neighbour seeking his help, and then by bureaucrats, who confiscate his painting materials. For a while Niggle has to abandon his project entirely, having taken a long-dreaded journeying to a kind of labour camp, where he falls ill and ends up being incarcerated in a sinister hospital.
In different hands, Tokien’s earnest authorial voice and at times, frankly, crushing humourlessness might have resulted in a rather plodding production. The clever stroke here is Medrington’s braiding of Niggle’s story with elements of his own family history, which he recounts with warmth and gentle wit. He complements Tolkien’s yarn of everyday failure by relating his own experience of trying to write a fantasy novel, only to abandon it after getting down 100,000 words. We hear about his grandmother, who gave up on life and “smoked herself into an early grave at the age of 98.” At the outset he shows us tiny family treasures, including a beautiful green shawl and an antique golf club, which he then seamlessly incorporates into the main performance.
The soundtrack, composed by Karine Polwart and Michael John McCarthy, and lovely, warming lighting by Gerron Stewart, only serve to enhance the dreamy secondary world evoked by Medrington’s narration. As with all good short stories, this one expands in the imagination. Mighty oaks from tiny acorns grow, indeed.
Touring Scotland to July 30. For details see puppetstate.com