The vain and tyrannical Laird of Kiltie has one true love, his clothes, or more precisely, his kilts. In the lead up to the most important day in the Kiltie calendar, his birthday, the Laird wants one thing, a new kilt ‘the likes of which has never been seen’. Enter Mr. Harris and Mr. Tweed, two dodgy weavers who give this gullible customer exactly what he asks for.
Hans Christian Andersen’s famous children’s fable has been wittily re-imagined as a family musical comedy, told in Wee Stories' trademark story telling style, interwoven with Scottish music hall, pantomime and ceilidh.
Co-produced with the National Theatre of Scotland in 2008, The Emperor’s New Kilt won the CATS (Critics Awards for Theatre in Scotland) Award for best show for children and young people in the same year.
|Based on||The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Andersen|
|Written and directed by||Andy Cannon and Iain Johnstone|
|Musical Director||David Trouton|
|Set & Costume Designer||Becky Minto|
|Sound Designer||Mark Cunningham|
|Lighting Designer||Mike Brown|
|Production Manager||Andrew Coulton|
Friday 18 April 2008
IF ONE of the purposes of the National Theatre of Scotland is to give longer life to fine shows that might otherwise languish in ill-deserved obscurity, then it achieves that aim in superb style – with bells, whistles, a dash of tartan, and a dose of 7:84-style politics – in the brilliant revival of Wee Stories' The Emperor's New Kilt that opened this week at the King's Theatre in Edinburgh.
First seen on a modest village-hall tour back in 2004, this classic show from the finest of all Scotland's companies for children started life as a tiny piece for three actors, with a set that consisted of no more than a couple of tartan rugs and an old clothes-horse. The story begins in the imaginations of a wee brother and sister, on holiday in the far north-west of Scotland, who show up their bossy elder brother by pretending – with the aid of a pair of binoculars – to see an island far out on the horizon which doesn't really exist. They call the place "Kiltie"; and in no time at all, we find ourselves plunged into the matching story of Kiltie itself, a place owned lock, stock and sheep-run by a pompous daftie of a laird who orders a brand-new kilt as a birthday present, and is promptly ripped off by a pair of urban con-men who arrive on the island and – with the connivance of the delighted locals – pretend to make the new kilt out of material that only clever people can see.
Meanwhile, a lovely wee islander called Rona has left her old grandpa at their croft, and is making her way to the Laird's Big House with her pet sheep Ramsay, whose fleece has been requisitioned for the making of the kilt. Cue a hilarious and telling series of adventures, in which every known cliché of island life is noisily celebrated, and most of them briskly subverted, while Ramsay the Sheep – brilliantly played by Andy Cannon, with a pair of toddler wellies for front feet – emerges as an unlikely hero.
What's delightful about this new, large-scale version of the show, though – like a cheeky summer pantomime crossed with an electronic ceilidh – is the skill with which Cannon and his designer, Becky Minto, manage to preserve the improvised slapstick charm of the original, while using the scale of the big stage to evoke the beauty and magic of the whole island landscape, with its dazzling colours and sometimes breathtaking scale.
Cannon, Iain Johnstone and Louise Montgomery make a superb core performance team, with the kind of presence that makes a big auditorium seem immediately intimate and warm. And if the show's strong anti-laird political stance sometimes seems laid on with a trowel, most of Cannon's writing is so witty, so confident, so deeply rooted in Scottish speech-rhythms, and so subtly subversive, that even the most militant members of the laird class are likely to find themselves laughing, as this deceptively simple delight of a show tours across Scotland and to points south over the next two months.
21 April 2008
"Sometimes the scariest thing can be your own imagination," says the independently minded Rhona as she explains to a golden eagle (by the name of Glen) that the giant crow he is frightened of is actually his own shadow. Scary, yes - but the imagination is also one of our greatest gifts, which is why Wee Stories underscores this joyful, funny and multi-layered show with a kind of treatise on the creative mind.
If it weren't for lateral thinking, the con-men Mr Harris and Mr Tweed would never have posed as weavers from the big city, nor had the enterprise to persuade the kilt-loving Laird of Kiltie that they could produce a cloth that was invisible to stupid people. And if it weren't for his capacity to pretend, the laird would never have allowed his insecurity to govern his perception. Like Glen the eagle, he is made to look foolish by his own dark fantasies.
In turn, this whole show - by director/performers Andy Cannon and Iain Johnstone, working in collaboration with the National Theatre of Scotland - is one big act of the imagination. They frame their reworking of the Hans Christian Andersen parable with the story of three children going on a Highland holiday. The three of them will the island of Kiltie into life through the power of make-believe, and, thanks to a gloriously hand-stitched set by Becky Minto and props made of coat-hangers, clothes-horses and costume rails, they never let us forget that we, too, are playing a big game of pretend. All the same, they do this so beguilingly - from Cannon's big-eyed sheep to Johnstone's fat-arsed laird, via Louise Montgomery's spirited Rhona - that there is a real note of poignancy when they declare the game over. Once more, the island is as transparent as the laird's new kilt.
Robert Dawson Scott
22 April 2008
Wee Stories, the company behind this entertainment, have been making award-winning shows for children in Scotland for more than a decade. There are only three of them so they are “wee” in that sense. but they really should be called Tall Tales or even Huge Enormous Tales, such is the scope and scale of what they do.
Here’s the recipe for this one. Take one familiar Hans Christian Andersen original. Relocate it to the mythical island of Kiltie, off the West coast of Scotland, where the Laird wants a special new kilt for his birthday (his birthday suit, you see…) Introduce a Mr Harris and a Mr Tweed, kilt-makers and con merchants to the gentry. Turn the original boy who points out that the king is altogether in the altogether into a feisty wee girl with a pet sheep called Ramsey (sheep, ram – oh, do keep up) who’s guts are in danger of becoming the Laird’s birthday haggis. Enrich with a shy stag (“You’re a deer!” says the little girl when she meets him in the woods. “And you’re a darling, he replies), jokes and routines that are older than Barry Cryer, music, colour, character, history, even a dash of politics. Result: more than two hours of almost pure enjoyment for children and adults alike.
You have probably taken your own children to shows outside the panto season. Arts centre, was it? Somewhere a bit earnest? Not here; with the National Theatre of Scotland as co-producers, this is a show that has been scaled up from humble beginnings four years ago to fill the proper theatres such as the 1,300 seat King’s, in an attempt to make theatre for young people as big as anything else. Part of that upscaling has been to add Becky Minto’s gorgeous appliqué stage cloths (it’s all to do with fabrication, yarns, being stitched up) as a backdrop. The chorus of singing sporrans is a master stroke, as are the gossiping puppet villagers.
The trick, though, is retaining a sense of intimacy, especially for smaller children; this is advertised for 6 and over. Andy Cannon and Iain Johnstone, the writers, directors and principal performers (Johnstone is the lumpy Laird, Cannon the sheep), pull this off by making the whole thing a story about a story.
Cannon begins by recounting tales of his own childhood holidays to the West Coast with his big brother (Johnstone again) and wee sister (the winning Louise Montgomery).
As they arrive, they tell stories to each other, and suddenly the tartan rug on the beach is a kilt, the bucket and space have become vital props in the land of Kiltie, which they have just invented. The stories might start small, but it is imagination that counts here and that is as high, wide and handsome as you like.
When Hans Christian Andersen wrote “The Emperor’s New Clothes” in 1837, he wasn’t thinking about land ownership in the Scottish Highlands. Nor did he have any concern for Scotland’s burgeoning music hall tradition. But even though these are two of the unlikely themes that emerge in Wee Stories’ raucous, big-hearted retelling of the parable, “The Emperor’s New Kilt” is a production that is as true to Andersen’s radical spirit as it is rich in ideas of its own.
In the title role, Iain Johnstone is not an emperor at all, but the laird — or landed proprietor — of a fictional Scottish island called Kiltie. He has taken control of this rural idyll with the self-interested gusto of the landowners who initiated the 18th century Highland clearances, forcing the population off the land in favor of sheep farming and aristocratic pursuits such as shooting, hunting and fishing.
A pompous figure of fun, this Laird of Kiltie is disliked by man and beast, not least for claiming ownership of everything from the mountains to the grass.
He does, of course, have a weakness which, in this Highland setting, is his voracious love of kilts. When two passing con men hear he is looking for a birthday kilt like nobody has ever seen, they set to work at a loom with a thread that stupid people might even think was invisible. First they fit him up, then they stitch him up. Good and proper.
The distinct cultural context means that when Louise Montgomery’s Rhona, an independently minded young islander, announces that the laird is in his birthday suit — and not in the way he intended — she is challenging not only the social pressure to conform but also the political authority of the land.
Even though the story is performed with all the bright and breezy knockabout charm you would expect of a family show from kid-theater specialists Wee Stories — here in collaboration with the National Theater of Scotland — it carries extra weight by engaging with the deeper implications of Andersen’s fable.
Johnstone and co-creator Andy Cannon (whose performance as Ramsay the sheep is a big-eyed treat) reflect on their place as a small children’s company on a big proscenium-arch stage by setting the show in the context of the popular tradition of pantomime. Both in the performance style, which is forthright and open, and in Becky Minto’s glorious patchwork backdrops, reminiscent of hand-stitched vaudeville sets, “The Emperor’s New Kilt” takes a knowing place in Scottish theater tradition.
The performance is also a study of the imagination. The story is framed by the tale of three children on vacation who invent the island of Kiltie in a game of make-believe.
It’s a game in which the audience joins in, happily accepting that the coat hangers, clothes rails and other wardrobe props can stand for whatever the actors want them to stand for. Likewise, it’s quick witted imagination that inspires the con men to trick the laird and it’s a rather over-active imagination that allows the laird to fall for their ruse.
What’s interesting, in a show that features songs, funny puppets, talking animals and high-speed doubling of parts, is that we are sucked into the story even though the actors never hide the pretence. When finally the game is over and it’s time for the children to end their vacation, there’s a real moment of poignancy, quickly upturned by a rousing ceilidh finale.