Having seen Theatre-Rites’ wonderfully immersive The Welcoming Party at MIF 2017, expectations of The Global Playground – the company’s offering for this year’s festival – were high. The fact that it was my first in-person, indoor theatre trip since March 2020 only added to the anticipation.
Happily, the show does not disappoint – a charming, comical fusion of dance, live music, puppetry, projection and creative lighting, its playfulness and joy keeps it in the realm of family theatre whilst gently pushing at the boundaries of the genre. A song about following your dreams performed by a fuzzy, Muppets-esque orange puppet could feel overly cheesy, but is balanced with plenty of humour – from quick asides to a coughing audience member, to the high-pitched interjections of a ventriloquised camera prop.
Evidently, there is a lot going on in the show, but the plot holding it together is fortunately minimal. Sean (Sean Garratt) is attempting to make a film, with the help of his anthropomorphic camera, a musician and a cast of dancers. But the project is plagued with difficulties, from technical issues and a last-minute change of musician to a missing dancer; the latter leads to Kennedy (Kennedy Junior Muntanga) attempting to reconstruct his duet with Thulani (Thulani Chauke) via video call, which proves impossible as the call freezes and eventually drops off. It’s a clear reflection of the frustrations that have been felt by artists and performers throughout the pandemic, faced with so many obstacles and forced to adapt – indeed, Thulani Chauke was only able to appear in the show digitally because of travel restrictions.
The diverse ensemble of dancers – which also includes Annie Edwards, Charmene Pang and Jahmarley Bachelor – cover the ample choreographic ground provided by Gregory Maqoma with abundant energy, from contemporary ballet to street dance and vogueing. One of the show’s most memorable numbers sees Sean grappling with an unstable camera tripod – the dancers mirror the prop’s movements as if controlled by it, clownish but precise in their physicality.
This magical edge to the show becomes more prominent as it progresses, with the brief appearance of an ominous, red-eyed camera, gliding along snakelike on wheels. There’s also a mesmerisingly slow, beautiful number, where the cast use light reflectors to shine silvery spotlights across the audience, and an exuberant finale dance around a giant disc in the middle of the stage, which is lit in a rainbow of colours as it is slowly rotated by two performers. Guy Hoare’s ingenious lighting design is key to creating the magic of these moments, with bursts of colour, atmospheric shadows and clever use of photography studio props.
The fact that The Global Playground is staged in the round could be seen as an additional challenge, particularly for dance, but this choice actually helps to promote interaction between performers and audience, and to create a joyful shared experience that is unique to live theatre.
Through perseverance, creativity and play, the characters eventually succeed in finishing their film – a clear message to the audience to keep going and not give up, one which will hopefully inspire both young and old to pursue their creativity and embrace the endless playground that is the arts.
The Global Playground Friday is at The Great Northern Warehouse, Deansgate as part of MIF 2021 from 2–18 July. This production is also being presented digitally.