It's No Picnic for Teddy Bears at the Tabard
But a crisis of conscience in toyland makes for a very funny show
No Picnic is a strange idea brought to life by a sharp, clever and very funny script. Six toys – three teddy bears, two clowns and a doll – from a pop-up a story book - get caught up in a series of events that change their worlds forever. They're struggling to cope as it's all outside their control, almost Samuel Beckett in fancy dress.
The play opens with two bears on a cliff edge, escaping from pursuing clowns on horseback, after a very disappointing teddy bears' picnic. They may be big and clumsy but Julius and Ludovic, as sensitively (if sweatily) played by James Sygrove and Dan Frost in full bear costumes, are also utterly charming.
But existential angst isn't their only crisis. More significantly, they have a crisis of conscience over what happened at the picnic. The details of the events leading to their guilty consciences are in themselves startling, with the gruesomeness softened by the storybook context.
As the bears explain, they are conditioned to tell the truth: it's sewn into their underpants. But, and this is a big but, they could be in serious trouble if they don't lie. So what do they do? The script explores the philosophical dimensions of truth with some smart, witty dialogue. Writer Greg Freeman wrote the script for the TV series The Upper Hand.
The bears take their problem to Greta, a ‘weird doll', played by the stunning beautiful Helen Russell-Clark (who played Jem Costello in Hollyoaks). The way she can put a spin on everything they say makes them think she's a lawyer, but it turns out she's just another insecure creature who's frightened of growing old. Greta has her own battles with the meaning of truth.
With the arrival of an extremely unpleasant clown (brilliantly played by Rhys King), a complex and surprisingly intriguing plot unfolds, which confuses the bears and the audience with all sorts of twists and turns that keep you guessing right to the end (it's more of a ‘How Can They Escape The Mess They're In?' plot than a Whoddunit?). All the while the characters struggle with the concept that the divide between truth and lies may not be clear-cut, with the possibility that truth is created by the ‘story teller' (which leads to a great final line).
The set's clever and compact, ideal for the small Tabard stage. It's a big pop-up book with pages that are turned to create the scenes - the barn, the dolls' house and the prison.
The play isn't without fault, as it gets off to a very slow start. Of course the scene has to be set and the bears' dilemma explained and there are some clever noises-off to create the tension, but it took too long and I began to wonder where it was going. However, the pace picks up and it's well worth the wait as it deals with important issues in a way that will set you thinking as well as laughing.
The young and hard working cast inhabit the storybook world with skill and enthusiasm, making you believe in them as living beings (and it must have been a relief to Sygrove and Frost to take off their costume heads at an emotionally pivotal point).
Freeman has written a number of plays, two of which have been performed at the Tabard – Beak Street and Doig The Musical With No Singing, No Dancing and Very Little Music which won The Time Out Critics' Choice. No Picnic is another world premiere for the Tabard.
It's not hard to imagine this play, with a little bit of tweaking being, picked up by a bigger theatre interested in new writing. It is fresh, with a good blend of what is challenging, quirky, clever – and funny.
March 24, 2012