For many of us the value of time spent in nature was unappreciated until the Covid pandemic arrived. Suddenly families everywhere were seeking out green spaces and benefitting from time outdoors, seeing it differently. Now we’re liberated from lockdowns, it’s particularly timely that at the Unicorn Theatre Marvin’s Binoculars is revived from its mid-pandemic streamed form onto the big stage, still offering ways to look at life through new lenses.
The show tells the story of Marvin (Daniel Braimah), who is given some binoculars and delights in using them to discover his local area. He makes a new friend Sita (Rose Marie Christian) and their friendship also lets him explore her world and culture. Importantly, he learns it’s OK to be different and to be the best person you are, no matter how others behave.
Under precise direction from Hannah Quigley, this is a carefully-paced piece of storytelling. The show opens with a lengthy narrative introducing Marvin and Sita, where we learn how his interest in the natural world was initiated by his Grandma, and which foreshadows events to come. Braimah and Christian bring youthful energy as the children, and their characters are joyfully recognisable and likeable. There was a point, following this long introduction, where suddenly large numbers of the audience got up to go to the bathroom, and I admit I thought the show had lost them. But then a carefully timed plot point showed Marvin leave his binoculars behind and suddenly, KAPOW! – the energy span round 180 degrees, and the whole place sprang up, audibly rooting for Marvin to get them back. The audience were hooked for the rest of the production.
Marvin’s meeting with the mean Warden (Marie Blount) works really effectively, engaging the audience in the fun challenge of his ‘test’. But importantly it also makes them aware he is being subjected to systemic racism where “boys like you” aren’t supposed to have nice things and are assumed to be thieves and liars. The message is clear that this is not OK. It felt very empowering for the audience to be rooting for him as he not only stands up to the Warden, but then positively does something nice for her, gifting his beautiful drawing, because that’s the kind of boy he is.
The colourful set is bold and vibrant, but in the context of focus, which the play calls for both as mindfulness and observational behaviour, it feels a bit oversized. There are a few moments where the lighting draws in on parts of the stage, adding emphasis to particular plot points, and it would be nice to see more of this, spotlighting moments of discovery. Additionally, the balance between garish urban and gentle natural worlds might benefit from some softness in the outdoor scenes.
Marvin is a complete nature nerd, but his dialogue is sometimes over-consciously educational: you can almost imagine the Teachers’ Pack being written alongside it. The online version beautifully animated some of the creatures, and maybe a similar approach onstage might lighten up his birdspotting, allowing the audience to imagine what he’s describing and then perhaps experience it as projections.
That being said, this is a fun production with a dynamic cast that covers important themes. It demonstrates it is OK to be different and encourages us to focus in on the important things. It offers coping mechanisms for stress and loss, underscores the importance of family and memory, and shows that if we take time to interact with each other openly we can enjoy the benefits. There’s no need for binoculars to see it’s well worth a look!
Written by: Justin Audibert
Based on an original idea by: Samuel Wyer and Justin Audibert
Directed by: Hannah Quigley
Sound Design and Music by: Mike Winship
Lighting Design by: Simeon Miller
Associate Design by: Constance Canavarro
Movement by: Lucy Cullingford
Voice by: Joel Trill
Fight Direction by: Bethan Clarke
Marvin’s Binoculars plays at Unicorn Theatre until 3 July. Further information and bookings can be found here.