views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

The Son of Heaven, the Servant of God & the Map of the World
The Blue Elephant Theatre
13th November 2014

★★★☆☆

Publicity image for The Son of Heaven, the Servant of God & the Map of the World

Photography provided by The Blue Elephant Theatre

We've previously called Tattoed Potato's work "intriguing" and full of "daring approaches". I know this, because the team have kindly quoted us on the front of the programme of their latest production. And having now seen this work in progress, I don't like to say "I told you so", but I will. With a title that could be one of Aesop's Fables, in The Son of Heaven, the Servant of God and the Map of the World the troupe weave ideas of solidarity, power, the innocence of children and wonder of discovery to charming effect.

We first meet the Emperor of China (Catherine Johnson), still a child and more interested in play than the day-to-day comings and goings of what a ruler actually does. Isolated from the world, with only his three advisors (Marco Nanetti, Melissa Philips and James Riccetto) for company. And then there's Matteo (Riccetto), a child who would be a priest, his world growing larger with travel and his imagination. And when Matteo delivers a map of his own making to the Emperor, the pair go on a small journey and their similarities and differences stand revealed.

It's rather apt that, in exploring these two youngsters, Tattoed Potato - the players and director John-Michael MacDonald - preach a sort of theatre-as-play ethos. Remember all of those dreary Theatre in Education things you were forced to bear witness to at school? Think that, but actually good and with no educational element. It's a stretch, but I think you know what I mean. There's an exuberance that comes entirely naturally with whatever the group are doing that's frankly infectious.

And the group do a lot. Whether it's t'ai chi-cum-dancing, the constant, fantastical soundscapes when teaching the Emperor how to write or play board games, mapping out the world with string and Blu Tack or shadow puppetry. It's everything and the kitchen sink theatre which usually lands. Sure, as it's a work in progress, things need tightening up here and there. Shadow puppetry of Matteo's mind needs to be slicker, sharper and ideally operated by more people than they seemed to have. Changeovers too need to be shorter. But for sheer raw potential and gumption to be different? Well, they have it in spades.

It's a hard balance to get right, ensuring the method of delivering the story doesn't end up overshadowing the tale itself. Or to be terribly worthy and make it po-faced. All four performers bring a joie de vivre that rides roughshod over any such worries, garnering genuine laughs along the way. From the Emperor's daily rubber-stamping of bureacracy (including a wonderful reluctance to approve "deforestation" and "exploitation") to the representation of Canadians, they never fail to amuse.

Although the ending is bittersweet, it's also incredibly abrupt and could benefit from being capped off. The ideas the show presents are explored, but perhaps not as fully as they could have been. Don't get me wrong, you're satisfied, however more could be done, especially regarding the pacing of the final scene.

Often, when reviewing works in progress, it's easy to love something so much you get blinded to its faults. Equally, it's easy to hate something and miss any promise. Not so with The Son of Heaven, the Servant of God and the Map of the World. It's not perfect, but that's the point, isn't it? Yet the potential shines through in every aspect of the piece. With a good amount of spit and polish, I've no doubt this could be another triumph for the delightfully idiosyncratic team.

The Son of Heaven, the Servant of God & the Map of the World opened on 11th November and runs until 15th November 2014 at the Blue Elephant Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Oval (Northern)



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