THERE WAS AN OLD LADY WHO SWALLOWED A FLY
Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 7th September, 2012
Steven Lee’s play, based on the well-known nursery song, gets off to a good start. We meet the titular Old Lady in her brightly coloured home, enjoying a sing-song with a man in a tabard – her care worker, presumably. The audience is invited to join in with the medley of all-time greatest hits, Old MacDonald Had a Farm, If You’re Happy And You Know It, Baa Baa Black Sheep and so on. It’s familiar territory and the crowd, especially the youngsters, were keen to participate.
The Old Lady is left on her own with a vague promise of Meals On Wheels to come. She is hungry and in a well-executed dumb show sequence she inspects her fridge and comes away like Old Mother Hubbard, empty-handed. The standard of clowning from the Old Lady (who, it is apparent is neither Old nor indeed a Lady) is very high. The energy of the performance (I don’t know the actor’s name –the publicity materials give nothing away) is maintained throughout. A pity then that the show takes a wrong turn and doesn’t really recover.
When you’re staging a story that is so well known, there is the problem of how to keep it fresh and how to put your own stamp on it. We know the Old Lady’s rapacious carnivorousness will lead to her demise, just as we know the ship’s going to come a cropper in Titanic. Steven Lee introduces another character to flesh out the story and it doesn’t quite work.
The new character is a Russian scientist. He tells us in a lengthy monologue (in a voice reminiscent of that bloody insurance-flogging meerkat) that he has uncovered a scroll, telling the story of the Old Lady but crucial words are missing. With our help he wishes to reconstruct the Old Lady’s story to learn her eventual fate. Did she in fact die? There is a convoluted explanation that what we are watching is not the Old Lady in her home, but a reconstruction made from ‘hard light’. I found it difficult to follow. The little kids in the audience weren’t impressed either, given the amount of chatting going on. This is all a tortuous ruse to enable him to introduce the notion of ‘soft light’ – video projections on a screen.
I don’t think any of this was necessary. They could go the reconstruction route and explain that this is an actor representing the original Old Lady. If they have to go the reconstruction route at all. I don’t see why they couldn’t have told the story straight.
The animals the Old Lady swallows are represented by a range of puppets. The spider is a gruesome glove puppet, the cat is on rods, the cow is a Lion King type contraption with stilts for forelegs – nice try but it just looked emaciated. There is a moment when the Old Lady tries to suck milk directly from the udder that had mums in the audience gasping and me tittering inappropriately.
The Old Lady runs offstage to track her quarry and, thanks to the scientist’s soft light machine, we can see how this happens through a series of animated sequences. If you’re going to incorporate video projections into a performance, let it happen. You don’t need the spiel that goes with it – the audience will accept the convention as it happens. Enjoyable as they were, I have reservations about the animated sequences too. Like the scientist’s expositional monologues, there are too many of them – they rob the play of some of its inherent theatricality. I think this imaginative team could have come up with alternative, more theatrical ways of showing the Old Lady swallowing the animals as their size and bulk increases. Shadow theatre, for example. But what do I know?
There is also a problem with the treatment of the Old Lady. At first, our sympathies are with her. Even though we are disgusted when we see her with a spider leg poking out of her mouth like Renfield in Dracula, it is funny and she is a likeable, if dotty, old bag. But as her descent into mental illness increases and her insatiable appetite leads her to commit further zoophagous atrocities, we are encouraged by the scientist to scream if we see her coming on stage behind him. He runs off, trying to save a particularly cute-looking goat, and the Old Lady asks us, when our screams have subsided, to tell her which way the scientist went. I didn’t know whose side I was meant to be on.
The action grinds to a halt for a misjudged song about the digestive system. Because this is an original song, the audience is unable to join in. The scientist attempts to demonstrate the effects of swallowing so many large animals whole will have on the Old Lady with a larger-than-life cut-out figure. “What can you do if you are crazy old lady with indigestion?” he asks in his meerkat delivery.
It’s hardly a sympathetic way to deal with someone who has mental health issues – only a few minutes before she was crawling around, behaving like a dog. The show gives out mixed signals. The Old Lady apparently dies – she has been permitted to indulge her appetite until it kills her but the message about diet and obesity is missed. She jumps up again and I don’t know if I was meant to be pleased by this, given that the Old Lady has been divested of her humanity and made monstrous. Is this meant to be a cautionary tale? I wonder what message the kids took away from this.