Written and Directed by Belle Streeton
Written and Creative Production by Daniel Swift
It’s difficult, dealing with loss.
And it’s certainly not something we ever desire for those so young. But Alex finds comfort in creating stories to stoke the wonders of imagination – both as a form of refuge from loneliness, and to forge a closer relationship with her father, Gareth (Matt Heslop), as each struggles with the passing of Alex’s mother. The love between the pair is evident, but they blunder to form a communication and manner of relating to one another, Gareth works extra hard to ensure money flows into the home, so he enlists the aid of a new babysitter, Lena, to lend a hand with Alex.
Launching into the stars once more, Concrete Youth revitalises their 2019 debut show, To the Moon and Back, a multi-sensory tale that explores space, and the importance of family and connection for young audiences with profound and multiple learning disabilities. They do so in comfort upon a soft, grey-scaled carpet, surrounded by the safety and reassurance of an encapsulating Igloo, where the cast begins with small, slow introductions with their audience – assurances of their safety and understanding of the performative nature. It’s a necessary, professional choice which also lends itself beautifully to the nature of the show: questions, involvement and honesty are encouraged. And with that – we’re ready to go on our adventure.
There’s only one question left: does the moon really smell of cheese? Let’s find out together.
Amelia Gabriel’s Alex is going to help us find out in a remarkably relatable and transferable show which speaks to the entirety of the audience – even if they don’t share a similar living arrangement to what’s demonstrated onstage. There isn’t a moment where Gabriel drops their appreciation of the curious and involved audience, smiling not only in character – but with their eyes, ensuring serenity and authenticity in their performance. Even when it isn’t all moon rocks and cheese, Gabriel’s more sobering moments, as Alex begins to pine for both their mother and father, are handled tastefully and without patronising.
They’re a match for the welcome chipper of Laura Kaye Thomson’s Lena, whose frequent use of BSL (as with Gabriel) offers a perpetual inclusion. Often, Thomson finds themselves dipping in and out of the direct performance to play the instrumentals of Tess Fletcher’s original composition. To the Moon and Back channels a distinctly musical core, with Thomson and Gabriel have crystal vocals which find a strong pitch without pushing the volume. Fletcher and Guy Hughe’s (additional) lyrics are simple, often humorous (especially somehow sliding in the meteoric destruction of the dinosaurs) or aid in shortcuts for emotions or narrative changes.
Heslop’s fatherly role is balanced to be initially distant from Gabriel’s Alex to introduce tension, and a spark for her thirst for adventure and companions, but towards the finale, integrates themselves into the heart of the performance – getting down to the younger audience’s level armed with their trusty plunger, proving to be a smash with the kids. It’s a common but still important lesson: the character of Gareth is never villainised – Heslop can commit to a realistic role of a father unable to be there entirely for their child in a traumatic time but comes to the steady realisation of family and spending time with loved ones.
Whilst the show is multi-sensory, taking time to establish any additional dimensions the audience can manipulate. From a mixture of moon-cheese aromas to the far more pleasing Strawberry smell and feel of Mar’s red sands, the visual is the most prominent, along with the auditory. Alex’s imagination cascades onto the Igloo walls surrounding the audience, Ed Grimoldby’s projection enables stylised line drawings to ensure it has a clean aesthetic, something anyone in the audience could have doodled themselves – but tidied for presentation. It’s all tied together with Adam Foley’s lighting, which bridges the gaps between the physical and the imaginary – incorporating the audience into the acts of play and make-believe themselves.
It’s an otherwise perfectly pitched show, somewhat marred only by the finale which comes as a touch jarring. For the most part, Concrete Youth have a thumb on the manner of performance, but one big final hurrah comes to a touch out of the left field, offering a bit of shock for some of the children not comfortable with the surprise element. It is, however, a very small slice of the show and handled expertly by the cast if there are any timider responses.
There aren’t enough stars in the cosmos to truly encapsulate the appreciation audiences have for Concrete Youth’s performance and dedication. It takes additional elements of understanding to accommodate such a diverse range of learning disabilities and ensure the show still runs as smoothly as it does. Not only are the trio performing a mixture of movement, song, and sensory performance – but need to remain astute to the movements and reception of the crowd. But away from the complimentary integrity of the performers, To the Moon and Back demonstrates an accessible sense of theatre and storytelling. A small sense of wonder and imagination: a revitalisation for youngsters, tired eyes, and any lucky enough to catch it.
Wonder and Imagination
To the Moon and Back was performed at The Studio, Potterrow Playhouse on April 26th.
Runs for thirty minutes without interval. Additional information about future tours may be obtained here.
Photo Credit – Sophie Rogers