Wednesday, April 24, 2013
Pea! by David Finnigan
Reviewed by Frank McKone
If there is one lesson which should be taught to all young Australian children, surely it must be irreverence. Pea! does it nicely.
On the other hand, children’s theatre must treat its trusting audience with respect – as indeed should all theatre. Pea! does this too.
The Hive Program at The Street Theatre encourages new writing and, with dramaturgical assistance, offers a season on stage. David Finnigan’s work in Pea! is perhaps the most assured and sophisticated product that I have seen so far from The Hive.
He has taken the moral behind the Hans Christian Andersen fable of the princess and the pea – that those absorbed in their own self-importance should be brought down to earth – and turned it on its head. “Princess” is no more than the name given Gwendoline by the wolves who kindly brought her up when her parents had abandoned her in the Wild Wood of the West. Gwen satisfies Prince Gregor’s pea-brained mother’s Princess Test, which she learned from daytime Royal Weddings television, precisely because Gwen is not full of self-importance but only wishes to save everyone from the Dragon-with-One-Nostrilled-Snout.
Gregor is certainly lucky to be taken in hand by a woman who can look after herself and sleep as comfortably on the ground as on 40 mattresses – and can solve the problem of how to use the pea to stop up the One-Nostrilled Snout. The whole kingdom is saved as the fiery Dragon’s internal gas pressure forces explosive farts from his other end, and he flies home in shame to his mother. It wasn’t just the children who could not contain themselves at this point in the story. I’m sure the laughing adults around me were thinking of a number of figures of seeming social importance whose snouts they might like to stop up with a pea, or three….
But the respect and care for the children was there from the beginning, as the actors – Cathy Petöcz and Josh Wiseman – made sure they had found out just about every child’s name and engaged them in conversation – about the other theme of the play: what’s your favourite vegetable? The Pea becomes the narrator, from his pedestal in the Museum of Famous Vegetables, and is even rather boastful of having saved the kingdom – except that everyone soon learns that it was really Gwendoline with a little help from Gregor. But, significantly, when there is thunder and lightning as the Dragon approaches, Pea stops the action to check if anyone is scared – because he or she (according to which actor is puppeteering at the time) is a bit scared too. “No, of course not,” the children reply. “We’re not afraid of the Dragon!” – and on we go to the explosive farts.
Carefully thought-out touches such as this were in themselves educational – for the children and even perhaps for parents. The script, and I suspect work done during the workshop and rehearsal process, shows how theatre can manipulate an audience’s reactions, but good theatre does this ethically. It’s this, the irreverence of the script, and the originality of the set design and use of puppetry, that I would like to praise the whole team for, in Pea!