Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh
Mary Brennan - The Herald
Published: 26 August 2010
4 stars ****
There’s something about wending your way through the leafy byways of the Botanics – maybe taking a turn through the glass-houses, soaking up the humid mood of the palms and ferns – that makes The Songbird all the more special.
For when Judith Williams, with her brilliant costume of rainbow plumage, comes into view, chirruping and trilling melodiously, she seems totally at home.
Not for long, however. Her rainforest habitat is destroyed by a developer who promptly snares the Songbird and – in an echo of King Kong’s sorry end – exploits her and her exquisite voice as an exotic curiosity in a stage show. As you might expect, the hapless Songbird cannot survive being caged and made to sing...
It’s a poignant narrative, rooted in issues that even young children are increasingly aware of nowadays. But what makes the Songbird’s plight so painfully vivid is the way that music – and this Giant production is accurately described as a ‘tone poem’ – carries the narrative and the characters’ reactions and emotions, without a fixed text. Composer David Paul Jones’s distinctive style of evocative soundscapes is superbly vocalised by Rachel Hynes and by Williams, whose little pecking footsteps and inquisitive turns of the head are nicely-gauged and never gimmicky.
Jones himself plays piano. Robin Mason plays cello. Their double-act of musical one- upmanship is the hilarious precursor to an ending that wisely chooses not to be dishonest. Everything about this work, devised and directed by Katrina Caldwell for ages 8+, has invention and integrity at its heart, while Brian Hartley’s set designs cunningly flip over, like a living picture book.
Joyce McMillan - The Scotsman
Published: 30 October 2009
4 stars ****
THERE’S A TENDENCY for children’s theatre to take a bells-and-whistles approach to the art-form, with performers seeking constant reassurance in the form of obvious audience reactions. Here’s a show though, that takes an entirely different approach. It’s serious, moving and dignified; and it treats its audience, aged eight and over, like real junior theatregoers, capable of taking on board some powerful and substantive themes. And beyond that, this beautiful 45-minute tone poem – written and composed by David Paul Jones, and conceived and directed by Katrina Caldwell – also adds something to the current rapid development of music theatre in Scotland; not least because of the astonishing synthetic languages – one from a beautiful island rainforest, the other a complex amalgam of western city language – in which Jones has written his libretto.
Through eleven distinct and beautiful songs, the story tells of a lovely, vulnerable songbird, exquisitely played and sung by Judith Williams, whose rainforest is destroyed by fire when a towering female figure of western commerce, fabulously embodied by soprano Rachel Hynes, comes to clear the land. The destroyer finds the bewildered songbird, and captures it for her own; she takes it to a western city, where the songbird is displayed and exploited as an exotic performer, before dying of grief and homesickness, and leaving its owner stricken with a terrible sense of loss.
The metaphor is obvious, and Brian Hartley’s set – of swift-moving, reversible flats, cunningly lit by Sergey Jakovsky - is as clever and effective as his beautifully-feathered songbird costume. And with the help of a little comic by-play from David Paul Jones as the pianist, and cellist Robin Mason, the children in the audience are held rapt from beginning to end, and left with plenty of food for thought, discussion, and dreams.