Following an exciting rebuild, the Polka Theatre looks amazing for its relaunch season. The opening show is an intriguing promenade performance exploring all the building’s space, and is made by a team of Deaf, Disabled and non-Disabled creatives. Red, based on the classic Little Red Riding Hood, brings the fairy tale bang up to date, using it to question the important theme of environmental pollution and our relationship with it. It’s an unusual show, requiring some initial effort to engage with it, but in encouraging an unfamiliar interaction it captivates and creates opportunity for deeper understanding.
As you enter, the theatre is beautifully decorated as a forest, imaginatively using repurposed umbrellas for trees. Vibrant colours along with sounds of birdsong and running water set an exciting sensory scene. When the action begins, it’s clear this is no ordinary production: the performance is entirely non-verbal, relying instead on sign language, physical movement and gesture to convey the plot. I must admit, as a hearing person it took a while to get used to this. Physically exaggerated expressions are initially alien, requiring some concentration to identify key gestures. The story is occasionally tricky to follow, especially when characters perform either side of the room, meaning a need to turn to see what is being signed; the plot could all too easily get lost in that moment, particularly for tiny people on the floor with adults between them and the action. However, unfamiliar with the storytelling technique, the use of pictures helps in clarifying the characters. There is definitely a period of learning how to understand, but once some of the tools are in place the show is uniquely engaging; perhaps not a thrilling adventure, but captivating, and ultimately curiously enabling in communicating its message.
The three actors who multi-role throughout are all incredibly animate, talented physical performers. The Woodcutter, endearingly played by Bea Webster, leads us on our adventure to find Red (Zoe McWhinney). Heading for the castle that wolves have overrun, we visit a swamp where we learn about human damage to the environment, and are offered solutions to problems we have created. Rachana Jadhav’s set and costume designs are beautifully crafted, created from waste plastic and rubbish; an example of recycling that cleverly echoes the storyline. Impressive technology animates the entire room: an interactive stream ripples when stepped on, and forests are cut down and regrow using striking wraparound projections. Again, the signing and gestures demand focus, but Webster’s likeable character does a great job of engaging the audience, guiding them through the narrative.
In the castle, the audience catch tantalising glimpses of McWhinney’s brave, bold Red, whilst Ciaran O’Brien enacts an incredible transformation into the wolf. We must then help Red scare off the wolf through signing. Such moments of participation add welcome elements of fun, really involving the audience as part of the story. The final scene, which offers the wolf’s perspective, reveals the lesson we have been actually acting out as we’ve joined in the quest; that we can understand each other better and resolve issues if we are open to learning differently.
This storytelling style demands significant audience commitment, which, as an adult, I found somewhat challenging, so I wondered if it was the same for children. There were questions and clarifications as we exited, but importantly the families left talking about what they’d been part of, and had enjoyed the theatricality. These are big themes for small people but, in wrapping them in a beautifully animated story that actively explores different ways of communicating, the show equips the audience to take new perspectives on them: it enables families to feel part of making positive change. The effort of investment certainly pays back.
Directed by: Hannah Quigley
Set & Costume Design by: Rachana Jadhav
Sound Design & Composed by: Adrienne Quartly
Lighting Design by: Peter Small
Associate Director & BSL Consultant: Brian Duffy
Red plays at Polka Theatre until 31 October. Further information and booking via the below link.