views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Baa Humbug
The Blue Elephant Theatre
8th December 2018


Alice Sillett as Humbug

Photography © Lidia Crisafulli

After all this talk of winter coming, winter is finally here. It's bitterly cold and dark - by the time it gets to 5 o'clock, you want to be curled up indoors wrapped up in a thick blanket, cradling a cup of hot chocolate. In other words, it's the perfect time of year for an afternoon show. Enter Baa Humbug, an original piece of new writing that tells of how a grumpy sheep called Humbug (Alice Sillett) revaluates her relationships with farmyard companions Cow (Oliver Yellop) and Chicken (Jonathan James) with a little help from a wise Farmer (Mark Nicholson). Aimed at those aged four upwards, Baa Humbug is a heartwarming tale that is guaranteed to leave you with a warm, fuzzy festive feeling.

In many ways, Baa Humbug feels like a Christmas gift written and directed by the Blue Elephant's own co-artistic director Jo Sadler-Lovett for the people of Southwark. At its most simple, it's a straightforward children's story with a bit of Christmassy cheer. However, when you look more closely, the writing is more complex than that. Despite only being a short 50-minute production, Sadler-Lovett skilfully weaves in some big, messy issues, challenging her young audience to empathise with some tricky and increasingly common situations, equipping them with a greater level of empathy than when they first set foot inside her theatre. This is someone who has taken the time to get to know her community and crafted something to entertain and inform with their specific experiences in mind.

Oh yes, don't let those jolly anthropomorphic farmyard animals fool you - this is a modern-day fable that covers the emotional fall out of being separated from family members, social isolation and the difference between misplaced attempts at humour and proper bullying. Baa Humbug doesn't shy away from those huge issues that have such an overwhelming impact on little people and it guides the audience through them all with a gentle kindness and grace. Just like chopped up veg disguised in a pasta dish, the younger audience members will barely realise they've been given a healthy portion of something that's good for them.

The usual obligatory Dickens-inspired trope favoured by December productions of the Ghost of Christmas Past is replaced with a more modern nod to the Beeb with the Farmer capable of festive-fuelled adventures in space and time. We like a good timey-wimey inference, but this wasn't quite as appreciated by the kids. Whilst there are just enough references to make this very much a yuletide show, Sadler-Lovett doesn't go full reindeer. The script could be easily tweaked for other occasions and restaged in schools in one of the other 11 months. I know what I'm going to ask Santa for - the key messages in this piece of writing deserve to be repeated.

The actors embrace their silly roles with infectious energy, engaging with the children easily, keeping them in an enrapt silence for the most part and having no problems getting them to chime in and participate at appropriate moments. Yellop and James have a natural on-stage camaraderie, creating an enviable image of friendship that neatly contrasts with Sillett's moody character. Although there's not a huge depth of performance, it must be remembered that this is a family production and it's deliberately fleeting in length to keep it accessible for all.

Children are encouraged to graze on snacks and drink if they want to, with the door to the auditorium kept reassuring open during the performance for any necessary comfort breaks. With tickets a fiver at most (there's a further discount for local theatregoers), this is a wonderfully affordable treat for families of all sizes. The more traditional rules of theatre etiquette are parked in favour of simply making sure everyone is happy and comfortable. It's perhaps sad that this is a revelation, but it really is and one worth applauding. For some of the littlest patrons, this may well be their first exposure to the arts and the Blue Elephant has created a relaxed and welcoming experience for them.

With performances unsurprisingly having sold out for its short run (who wouldn't buy a ticket for something as charming as this, particularly when prices are so low?), the Blue Elephant has proven that there is a real public appetite not just for mince pieces and selection boxes, but inclusivity. Baa Humbug is a creative, thoughtful and uplifting new piece of writing that will cheer even the grumpiest of people... and perhaps even the grumpiest of sheep.

Baa Humbug ran from 8th to 15th December 2018 at the Blue Elephant Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Oval (Northern)

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