There is a deliciously sweet and sticky treat for children at the Leichhardt Town Hall over the school holidays. Take the kids. Actually … let the kids take you. You are going to have as much fun sharing the honeyed adventures of THE TREE AND THE BEE as your little ones are. The show is immersive, active and engaging theatre where the characters and their sticky problem linger in the senses. It might even honeycomb nicely into that conversation you want to have with your children around the environment and their place in the natural world.
We meet Bette the Bee (Moreblessing Maturure) . She is desperate to help her friend, and her home, the last remaining tree (Eli King) to be well again. He does not look good when we meet him and Grub (Brigid O’Sullivan), Spider (Tom Crotty) and Bette have to enlist the help of the ‘lost walking bees’. That would be all the little people huddled around wanting to help.
And huddle they do. The show begins in the foyer with a shimmering golden sun (Irene Sarrinikolau) and a song and some shadows. As the children begin their experience, some will stay close to mum and some will cluster transfixed by the translucence of the glittery costume. Until Bette arrives in a rush.
Maturure has instant rapport with the children. She moves amongst them and they stare up at her. When she explains that she is a bee afraid of heights and so she can’t fly, she looks sadly upwards and the little faces follow her eyeline.
Bette is gentle and soft. She quietly asks the assembled swarm if they want to help and there is a resounding chorus. It’s clever scripting. Every parent or teacher knows how motivating and involving the helping instinct is in children. Later, when she asks if they will be brave, there are a few who hesitate but as we follow her into the space, the play and the playing draws them out of their shell.
It’s a big space and just as Hearst famously had a tiny foyer in San Simeon so that the grandeur of the dining room would be emphasized, the Town Hall is grand and ready to be explored when the children tumble in. Vividly designed by Gemma O’Nions using recycled and renewed materials and with an evocative, guiding original music score by David Herrero, the room is populated with characters who bustle around the poor dying tree.
That word is used. The cast say ‘death’ and they say ‘dying’ but once again, the excellent writing is evident. The terms are there to enrich empathy rather than instil fear. As our friend the tree loses one of his last remaining leaves, the children sigh and gasp and one little boy sums it up “Now there are only two!” What will we do asks Queen Bee (Dianne Kaye) and lots of little shoulders shrug.
While the thinking child might sit and watch in Nana’s lap, the doing child might explore everything the characters offer to provide a solution. Using universally understood games like Statues, Follow the Leader, Over and Under even The Limbo, the story is developed to allow the children to save the tree and help the bees. At the performance I saw, one little girl who is obviously going to be an eco-warrior gave a passionate, STEM based interpretation of why Grub transmuted into a butterfly.
Each individual responds in their own way and Mongrel Mouth have a shining reputation for creating experiential work. As an immersive theatre collective, it seems a natural step for the company to take their imaginative way of working into the realm of children’s theatre. Issues of sustainability, crashed bee colonies and the protection of trees are explored in a child centred fun way without anything heavy handed or preachy.
The performances are lovely. The songs are well interpreted, if a little too many for some of the younger participants. Including some group chorus might have helped the sustaining of their excitement. The whole cast is focussed, enthusiastic and supported by colourful and exciting costuming. As Grub, O’Sullivan is especially good at pulling the children into her world and even some of the more reserved ones sneaked forward to play her ‘Grub Says’ game.
As the season progresses, I saw the opening performance, the cast will become even more confident in responding to the little individuals who will share their story. And it is a tale to stay with you. The hum and flutter as the excitable ‘walking bees’ found their parents and carers to head home was wonderful to watch. The show is a real buzz! You can even buy your youngsters inspiring items and treats from the local Save our Bees organization at the Box Office.
THE TREE AND THE BEE by Mongrel Mouth continues at the Leichhardt Town Hall 107 Norton Street until April 24th.