This was my experience of a Wrongsemble production. It was also my first visit to Gipton Old Fire Station, since the fire engines left.
I arrived early for the 3pm performance and ordered a very good coffee in the airy café. Where the engines had previously stood there are now fire engine red tables, lit by red suspended lamps. Red is a powerful colour but the space is large enough to take the intensity. The red and grey palette gives warmth to the large space.
I chatted to some families having lunch following an earlier performance. All seemed to have enjoyed the theatre and food. One mother commented that she was impressed by the level of attention the actors commanded. Her son is autistic so she is always prepared to leave productions early, but this one engaged him throughout. He told me the singing was the best bit.
Five minutes before the performance, we were ushered past cabinets of model fire trucks to a rear hall. Adults sat on red and grey chairs whilst most children made their way to the front to sit on cushions. The children were made to feel this was all for them, as they huddled around the pink and mint beauty salon set.
There are only two actors: Flo Poskitt, as older sister Dolly, and Keeley Fitzgerald as middle sister Barb. We never get to meet the baby of the family, Cinders, although her presence is later suggested by a bright pink wig on a stand. Dolly does occasionally take on other persona – the Prince and a news reader – helping to add interest to the dialogue.
Both actors have powerful stage presence. Their voices and bodies display an agility that engaged the young audience. Rhyme, song, dance, characterisation and physical manipulation were all employed, and Keeley did a great Easter Bunny impression. Songs were delivered well, with Flo providing melody, whilst Keeley showed she could produce rock and roll volume.
The action (and it is very active) takes place on the day of the Royal Wedding, between Cinders and the Prince. They have not been invited. They are seated in an empty salon, their only customers those that phone up to cancel. Vilified by the Press, their successful salon has hit rock bottom. They muse over how they got to this point.
The characters are designed to contrast. Dolly is a romantic, her views rose tinted. Barb is a cynic, made distrustful by hard knocks. Their words conflict and add humour. Did Cinders wear a ‘glass slipper’ or was it a perspex flipper?, is Cinders perfect or a perfectionist? Together they examine different views of family and how the media twists truth.
The dialogue worked at many different levels. Younger children will be swept along by the action, rhyme and songs. Older children will be encouraged to think. When the Prince announced the ball would be BYOB, only the adults laughed.
Everyone will leave with the message that families are important, but are often messy and conflicted. The description of the sisters bickering and getting all ‘curling tongs’, heated, made me smile. As Barb says, her family is normal. A good message for children who might be wondering why their home is not the happy families image they are presented with in some stories or films.
Media, in all its forms, is shown as something that can contradict, contort and conspire. A sensationalist narrative has been built around Cinders’ marriage that both characters, from differing perspectives, explain has strayed a long way from the truth. All children, however young, will take away the thought that you cannot believe everything you are told in the media.
There is, of course, a happy ending. The smiles of children as they met the actors after the performance, and a positive end to the narrative. The play is advertised as being suitable for ages five or above, yet a girl, definitely no older than four, left beaming. An eleven year old boy I met was more thoughtful. He had sat with the adults, enjoyed the performance, and was glad he came despite being the oldest child at the event.
Wrongsemble are building a reputation for producing quality theatre for children. I met people who had attended earlier productions, Hansel and Gretel and Tinsel at Leeds Libraries, and been drawn back for more. You can watch Tinsel, their one person Christmas production, on Wrongsemble’s website.
There is a creative force between the company director and writer Elvi Piper plus designer Antony Jones. Elvi’s dialogue is fast paced, engaging and clear. Her young audience was swept along. The set and costumes were bright and energetic, visually engaging the audience. Community spaces are small and time was limited. Yet, in no way was the production constrained. The audience left feeling that they had experienced real theatre. The fifty minutes running time meant that the fidget factor was not tested amongst younger attendees.
As I left I noted the wide range of activities available at the community centre. Study sessions, a bike surgery, cookery school and a range of groups and organisations who meet there. I will be back to explore further and to sample more from their café.
The Not So Ugly Sisters continues to tour throughout April with support from Red Ladder, Leeds Playhouse and the Arts Council. There are a few theatre appearances beyond West Yorkshire but most events will take place in community settings. It ends the tour at Hunslet RLFC on Sunday 24th April.
Gipton Old Fire Station http://www.theoldfirestationgipton.org.uk/