Midnight’s Pumpkin has three discoballs adorning the rig. Perhaps I was always going to love it.
First, let me inform you of two things: 1) Kneehigh are a company I have long admired despite having never witnessed firsthand, 2) for the first time in about 4 years, I attended a show with my parents, who opted to join me after the rock music gig they originally planned was cancelled. Neither of them are theatre lovers, and both often seem bemused by my urgent enthusiasm for it. I loathe watching things I adore with newcomers, constantly checking on them to see whether they are enjoying themselves, which results in a level of anxiety that sometimes hampers my own enjoyment. Combined these two things made me fear for my evening.
There was nothing to worry about.
It was my first visit to Battersea Arts Centre; slightly ramshackle while remaining warm and welcoming, it is like a grown up version of Edinburgh’s old Forrest Cafe (but seemingly with more dedication to hoovering). On the way into the stunning grand hall, the set pieces and costumes can all be seen: Kneehigh are not trying to convince you this is real. From this off, the show is earnestly honest and endearing. Indeed, part way through the show one character, a mouse, informs us he’s just holding the stage while some people change costume and at the very end the titular pumpkin makes sure we’re all aware he’s just a man in a ridiculous suit.
The story is based on Cinderella. The fairy tale princess, here named Midnight, loses her mother, and her bumbling father decides to help ease her grieving he shall find her a new mother, who comes equipped with two odious, glittering step sisters. A local prince holds two balls to find the girl he shall marry and, lo and behold – it turns out to be Midnight! Her godmother replaced by a home grown pumpkin and some mice, Midnight navigates through a maze of confetti, suspended hula hoops and multi-coloured disco lighting to get her happily ever after.
So it’s not exactly a mind blowing plot. But I don’t really think it is supposed to be.
The first interval sees you invited to doll yourself up for the first ball, and even my Dad ended up sporting a comically enormous bow tie. The second finds the incredibly charismatic Stu Goodwin lead every willing audience member in a dance. Even my Mum, the most cripplingly reluctant audience member in history, was up on her feet doing her best John Travolta impression. The Evening Standard’s Fiona Mountford criticises this: Kneehigh are lazily hoping we’ll ‘generate our own entertainment to fill the void at this Pumpkin’s hollow core’. The core is, perhaps, a little hollow – there’s little depth to the plot and she rightly points out we learn ‘next to nothing’ about the characters. One of the things I absolutely adore about Kneehigh’s brand of theatre is that it sparks pure emotion, and the sheer joy of the participation makes it so in this instance, for it is a celebration. In addition, the ticket deals, marketing and plot basis of the show all indicate this is aimed towards families, and it doesn’t take a complex plot to make the sight of your mum doing the grapevine hilarious. Maybe we are generating our own entertainment: but it took the charming impetus put before us to make that entertainment occur.
Lyn Gardner’s review in her Guardian column said Midnight’s Pumpkin ‘lacks the subversive allure and quirky style that has permeated the company’s best work’. Granted, this was my first outing with Kneehigh, so I’m missing Gardner’s depth of experience and my view was coloured by my desire to absolutely adore everything. It’s possible that, when this show is compared with others, her point is accurate, but there was some level of subversion and quirkiness, I think. On a basic level, the narrator and main character was a pumpkin played by a fairly old guy., which isn’t how the story normally goes. On a deeper level, what Gardner terms ‘the happy families scenario’ at the end is, I would argue, subverted, albeit not massively and not as a focal point. From the message left for Midnight by her dying mother to the interval dance and dress up sessions, the production is dripping in the idea of living in the moment. We are told the Prince and his new ‘pocket rocket’ of a bride will live happily ever after, but they contradict the message. Midnight and her Prince, accompanied by bumbling dad and stepmother, sing at their wedding. On this day, the newlyweds love their significant other the most, but that might not always be the case. This show takes the cliché of seeking a happy-ever-after and tells the audience that doesn’t matter: do what makes you happy in the moment. It sort of negates its own story, which is awesome – especially when combined with all the prettiness the show achieves.
I’m also wondering whether Kneehigh are subverting expectation, and whether with Midnight’s Pumpkin that is the aim. If you are known to be subversive, is to continuing making subversive theatre actually subversive? Or, is doing a Christmas show with little plot or character depth but which focuses on being uproariously joyful more subversive? I don’t really know – though if this show does not fit into Kneehigh’s previous repertoire, it might be considered their most ‘quirky’ yet.
Ultimately, this was the most delight I have discovered in theatre in a while, and Kneehigh surpassed my expectations. Though I possibly am just won over by sheds with fairy lights and discoballs, or maybe I was just ecstatic that they got my Dad to enjoy the theatre.
(for 23/12/2012 performance)