It’s stormy outside. The cold rain is pelting down. But at the Little Angel Studios there’s sunshine, happiness, music and laughter! Handa’s Surprise is a beautiful stage adaptation of Eileen Browne’s award-winning picture book by the same name (You can read our recent interview with Eileen Browne here). Aimed at 2-5 year olds, the 35 minute show tells the story of Handa, a young girl in Kenya who simply tries to take some fruit to her friend. Little does she know that the animals are having all sorts of fun behind her as she goes along, and in the end it’s her who gets a surprise!
This joyous production is a feast for the senses from the very start. Sophia Lovell-Smith’s warm set design is deceptively simple; a golden, earthy floor, set sparsely with rustic pots and baskets, at the back of which a vibrant green and orange tangerine tree sits. The audience is invited to sit closely round the edge of the stage, and that welcome sets the friendly, comfortable tone for the whole production. When we enter, Handa (Hannah Akhalu) and her friend Akeyo (Rujenne Green) are dressed in beautiful African prints, singing traditional music with wonderful voices.
As the story unfolds, the children in the audience are invited to choose fruit from a basket to examine. Some are familiar, some less so, and it’s a great way to allow them to explore the world being introduced and be active in the show. Then there’s a lovely rhythm to the tale, as fruits are described and revealed, and tunes are refrained. The descriptions are sensory and evocative, so we can clearly imagine the colours, smells and tastes of what’s being depicted. Even though some of the language is Swahili, the meaning of the words is made evident through the charming, lyrical performance, and worlds interweave effortlessly, as we escape to the sun.
The delightful puppet designs from Peter O’Rourke are wonderfully playful and impressively innovative. In a show about things that happen but are not always seen, they are hidden in plain sight until it’s their time to surprise us, and then they pop up at the heart of the story, beautifully created from materials you might expect to find in an African village; a basket transforms into an ostrich, for example, whilst a parrot emerges from a corncob. The two actors skilfully characterise the various creatures, with the audience joyfully laughing along and imagining the transformations. The little monkey is definitely a crowd pleaser, with his cheeky comic mannerisms raising many giggles, but when a pile of sticks transforms into a giraffe, it’s just magical!
Throughout, the children are allowed to get close to the puppets and props used, and they have great fun singing along and clapping to the rhythms; very much a part of the show themselves. At the end they are invited to taste some real fruit and then to share Handa’s space, dancing to the music on the stage.
Handa’s Surprise radiates happiness, playfulness and imagination, seamlessly bringing Africa to the audience, and the audience to Africa. It’s an absolute joy from start to finish, and will leave you smiling and dancing your way out through that rain with sunshine in your heart.
Adapted from the book by Eileen Browne
Directed by Marleen Vermeulen
Designed by Sophia Lovell Smith
Puppets Designed and made by Peter O’Rourke
Handa’s Surprise plays at Little Angels Studios until 16 April. Further information and booking via the below link.