What exactly should one expect from theatre for young audiences? Whatever it is, Tortoise in a Nutshell’s visual exciting and immersive piece The Lost Things will most likely subvert it. Performed in a tent-like bubble, the audience – adults and all – sit on cushions whilst the action unfolds around them. It is a story that is at once marvellous and a little terrifying.
There are a number of parallels between this production and the classic children’s book Where the Wild Things Are; a young boy runs away from home and finds himself in a dark place filled with toys, radios, abandoned airplanes, and a lonely girl with a mysterious machine. Actors Arran Howie and Alex Bird convey this story through puppet versions of themselves, offering very little dialogue throughout the show. All of our attention is absorbed in its visual richness, which is enough to inspire a sense of awe in anyone – young or old.
One could be mistaken for thinking this is a fun story of escapism in a child’s imagination. Instead, the wonder is tinged with a sense of fear and uncertainty reminiscent of tales like Coraline. Heavy themes such as child abuse are touched upon, and some of the visuals are genuinely frightening. While parents may begin to feel cautious as the story unfolds, in the end the result is a show that respects the intelligence of its audience, never pushing the boundaries beyond what is appropriate for ages nine and over. The level of detail rewards the inquisitive child; the stern of the Titanic juts out from the side of the dome, and even though very little attention is drawn to its significance, titters and whispers from the peanut gallery let us know that it has not gone unnoticed.
Perhaps an antidote to the hyperactivity and vibrancy of a lot of modern children’s entertainment is the production’s slow, measured pace. That said, not a lot happens over the hour run time. There’s no doubt that it engages your curiosity; however, by the end it feels as though there is a gap in the narrative. The characters themselves are not especially memorable; Howie’s character in particular spends most of his time falling from place to place screaming, without offering much character development. Still, Howie and Bird give strong performances in person and through their manipulation of the puppets.
While as a piece of storytelling it is unsuccessful, as a piece of visual theatre The Lost Things is utterly, unquestionably engrossing.