It is slightly embarrasing to have failed to go to the theatre for six months only to return for the National’s christmas kids show. That said they usually put on a bloody good show: their version of His Dark Materials was excellent and I have fond memories of Alan Bennett’s The Wind In The Willows. You certainly get a good bang for your buck in terms of seeing your ticket price on stage. Unfortunately, last night that was about all you got.
This year’s production was Nation, adapted from Terry Pratchett’s novel by Mark Ravenhill. I had been looking forward to buying Nation when it came out in paperback, the first time this has happened with a Pratchett for a while. Now, either Nation is the worst and least Pratchett-y novel Pratchett has ever written or Ravenhill has written a bad adaptation. Since it falls prey to many pitfalls that can happen regardless of source material – too much has been crammed in; events are too compressed; awful, pointless songs have been inserted at random – I suspect the latter.
Two young adults, Mau (Gary Carr) and Daphne (Emily Taaffe), both find themselves isolated following a devastating tsunami. In Mau’s case, the other inhabitants of his South Pacific island (the Nation) are drowned; in Daphne’s case, she is shipwrecked on Mau’s island on the way from Britain to see her Governer father. They very quickly meet, overcome the language barrier and become firm friends and proto-lovers, all the while engaging in Post-colonisalism 101. There are a couple of good culture clash jokes but there was also an awful lot of standing around Declaiming and Enunciating and Acting. Ravenhill totally misjudges the balance of humour and serious comment present in all Pratchett novels, instead coming up with a wet liberal lesson with occassional pantomime flourishes. (It terms of both direction and design it often resembled a sort of Beginner’s Guide to The Royal Hunt Of The Sun.)
Most of the panto (and most of the fun) comes from Milton (Jason Thorpe), the ship’s parrot, who is given to blurting out mild swears and inapproriately repeating other characters’ lines. You can’t go wrong with a swearing parrot, particularly in a theatre full of kids, but it isn’t going to sustain you for two and a half hours. Instead we have an extremely leisurely meander through various subplots which never really cohere. Some of these – such as those involving Locaha, god of the underworld – are nicely done but too often they are reliant on underpowered set pieces. Others are utterly superfluous: presumably in the book The Gentlemen of Last Resort play a reasonable role but here they are just wheeled on, unexplained, and wheeled off. All they manage to do is set up a very silly panto finish in which Daphne’s dad is coronated. This unexpected comic scene was a welcome burst of fun but was immediately undercut by a scene made of pure sap that framed the play as a myth.