marianne dreamsas her xmas present, doctrah becky took the younger of her two little godsons (he’s seven) to this dramatisation of catherine storr’s puffin-club children’s classic, a book she and i grew up on — and i got to tag along (i’m 47): marianne, 10 and very ill, discovers that when she draws with a particular pencil she can visit what she’s drawn in her dreams; as her illness progresses, she learns to take responsibility for her powers in this very particular dreamworld, and to help the — rather difficult — person she has inadvertently trapped there and made life grim for… that’s a relatively unspoiler-y version of the story, which is intensely atmospheric, complete with awesomely sinister watcher-monsters, a very non-cute problem to solve, an adventure which can — very realistically within its dream-context — be undertaken by the children it features, and a lot of cheerfully inventive wit about the sometimes tricky relationship between what you drew and what you intended to draw…

The outing got exactly the right result, since smaller godson chattered very earnestly about it all the way home (including clearing up an important plot point which bears on intra-sibling jealousy, a big issue in his relationship with his older brother*), and then declared to his mum and dad on arrival home: “i think [very long pause to choose words exactly] that it was the GREATEST CHRISTMAS PRESENT EVER!” [in what follows there BE spoilers, subtext spoilers especially, though i’m keeping narrative ones to a minimum]

paperhousethe book will be 50 years old this year; as becky and i grew up we didn’t know other kids who knew it, so it’s a lot more of a family pleasure than many kids’ books, where you encounter the different responses and attitudes of non-family as a shock you have to adapt to; the remakes as film (the interesting but imperfect PAPER HOUSE) and TV came too late (for us) to have this effect, and as a result we were probably both quite territorial about this book… on the one hand nervously checking what was going on in his little head (“is this too hard for him?”; “is this too frightening for him?”) and memories of our own little heads (“is it getting this RIGHT?”)

despite being very deliberately anti-realistic in approach, i don’t think at all it was too hard for smaller godson — it was fun to watch his total concentration and absorption, as the story skips ahead through time pretty quickly, the borderline between waking and dreaming much more blurred than the book makes it — both worlds often on-stage at the same time, placed within the terrain of each other; i think its scariness was exactly right for him — he peeked a bit through his fingers in the most threatening reaches (at this same moment there was a small moaned “oh no!” from elsewhere in the audience)

things it got right:
— geography and activity are decidedly closer to child’s makey-uppy dynamics than any kind of literalism; by which i mean (for example), to knock on a door visible on one part of the stage, it’s perfectly OK (this is a dream!) to knock in mime at the air on another part of the stage — with a mix of real props, drawn props and imagined props, i think it dramatised both the fluidity and the logic within a dreamscape very well
— drawing: the backdrop was blank and a bit prison-like (like marianne’s sickroom and the room she at first traps her drawn companion in), but over could be projection-scribbled very effectively landscapes (as an adult artist might hatch them in); meanwhile the actress playing marianne real-time drew houses, bicycles, stairs, clocks, in her drawing book, so that we could glimpse them — boldly childish of line, in lovely thick black pencil
— period: paperhouse updated the story, maybe at the last possible moment… today, like dr who, marianne’s dreams would have to incorporate mobiles rather than radios; but this version took it back, to a quite fusty 50s (actually more like the late 40s: where IS marianne’s absent dad?), but made no great deal of this except to help amplify the absence of STUFF in this world (however the pocket in her bedstead, where she stowed The Pencil when sleeping, seemed very up-to-date and IKEA) (and WANT)
— relationships: the bond between the children-in-peril went from enthusiastic to tantrumish and back very effectively, their two solipsisms (imaginative solitary children more used to their own minds and company, and getting their own way) mutually fascinated without quite meshing, except in action — his pride and swiftness to unjustified scorn was especially good (it’s in the book but i’d never read it like that); her rage that he refuses to believe in her powers a bit more muffled (actually muffled by the intra-sibling jealousy plot-point noted above) but to be fair it’s like this in the book also –> i’m being territorial about what i refer to read into it here (which is a buffy-theory-of-everything exploration of the great power and great responsibility of magic er i mean art…); better yet is the slightly mysterious half-cloaked world of the grown-ups as THEY interact, on the edges of the story, thinking things about the children and each other that aren’t evident to the children — hinted-at stuff present for the diversion of grown-up watchers, which — grown-up real-world mundane as it largely is — is nevertheless left nicely open and unresolved and unexplained
— motion: marianne is required to STAY IN BED FOR WEEKS to get better, and she’s an ordinary active 10-year-old who wants a lovely pony and to be a ballet dancer and to be in school but without maths lessons and is VERY VERY BORED of sitting still — the first time she started ballet dancing round her dream i thought it was a bit too twee, but this entire element was actually very well thought-through, moving towards the really very complex frenetic wordless choreographies of later scenes (adult waking worlds and childish dream-worlds intersecting, different characters moving with and against one another accordingly…), and i came really to like it, as an anti-realist trope that combines child’s make-up dynamics as a freedom with child’s make-up dynamics as a limitation (it would have worked less well if her dancing had been pure “free expression”)
— the monsters: a VERY neat solution, in keeping with their less-is-more approach throughout (i was slightly dreading animatronic clumsiness here, the inert non-menace of the star-trek style plastic boulder…)

marianne dreams bookcoverthings it got wrong:
— marianne’s relationship with her home-tutor jumped to worship too quickly without any emotional pay-off (she’s there for a plot-reason a bit too entirely)
— the closing stages of the dream can rather easily be taken to signify WARE SPOILERS easeful passing into death and “moving towards the light” as waking up hale and hearty after serious illness; this was where the anti-literalist mode worked against the story they were presumably trying to tell, i think because they had so effectively realise liminality that it became VERY hard to step away from it; sheerly as a matter of what form can do and what it can’t, a book can maybe achieve “waking from a dream into the liberation of everyday reality” very much more effectively than a play, which can’t easily make cluttered realism — let alone uncluttered late 40s realism — anything of a desirable relief or release: this play did so MUCH with such minimalist resources that it affirmed the loveliness of the not-this-world, and ended up a bit more like THE LAST BATTLE, termtime is over and now it’s the holidays FOREVER, than it maybe meant to…. on the other hand, i’m not sure if this was a MISTAKE exactly — it occurs to me the reading of the book’s ending is also there to be read, just that i’d never have read it this way

*(his older brother’s godparent present had been a trip to the national’s ww1 puppet-based epic WARHORSE, which 7 is certainly too young for… but there had been very public sulkage) (and while WARHORSE has totally awesome life-size puppets and prize-winning stage-design from my very good friend r4e, i think it was a LOT less successful than this little play at dramatising a children’s classic…)