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Review: Heaven Eyes at Alnwick Playhouse, Northumberland

A new stage version of David Almond's Heaven Eyes challenges the imagination of young audiences

Maria Lindh, left and Natalie Ann Jamieson who star in Heaven Eyes by David Almond
Maria Lindh, left and Natalie Ann Jamieson who star in Heaven Eyes by David Almond

Anyone who glibly lumps David Almond into the category of ‘children’s author’, thinking cute reads for kiddies, reckons without Heaven Eyes.

Actually, they also reckon without Skellig, the famous debut novel which preceeded it.

Both lead their young readers – and adults, too – into strange realms of the imagination where there are questions but no easy answers.

It’s a brave theatre company which tries to turn the supernatural qualities of a David Almond story into something tangible – especially one with a hair-raising Tyne voyage as its centrepiece.

Three young residents of a children’s home, where tension crackles among the rootless and parentless, make good their esacpe on a raft.

It belongs to devil-may-care January Carr (Lawrence Neale) who takes Erin Law (Natalie Ann Jamieson) for the ride. She has nothing to lose but her life, she says, but then what’s that worth?

‘Mouse’ Gullane, who has a pet called Squeak, cadges a lift and the trio launch themselves into the unknown aboard this very flimsy looking craft.

Washed up on the Black Middens at the mouth of the Tyne, they are rescued by the mysterious Heaven Eyes (Swedish actress Maria Lindh) whose ‘Grampa’ (Paddy Burton) is less than pleased.

The drama swirls around these characters, their fears, suspicions and budding friendships. Everything comes to a head when something – someone? – is pulled from the middens mud.

Théàtre sans Frontières, based in Hexham, is equipped for a job like this, having forged a reputation for highly inventive foreign language shows aimed at children.

It has mustered a small army of top creative people to get Heaven Eyes on stage, including a puppet maker, Alison McGowan (don’t be thinking Sooty or Basil Brush), and film-makers Christo Wallers and Mike Edwick for back projections.

On Alison Ashton’s compact set, which rotates to turn orphanage backdrop into the bizarre domain of the title character, the action takes place at a gallop.

The young actors are all superb, the anger of ‘Jan’, the easy adaptability of ‘Mouse’ and the feisty practicality of Erin perfectly realised. The Swedish accent and language of Lindh, who in any case has an ethereal quality, highlights the strangeness of the piece.

I didn’t think the play’s big moment, when the mud yields its fairly gory offering, had the impact it might have done.

Too much was happening on stage at the same time and an opportunity seemed lost. What can leap effortlessly from the page into the imagination can seem a bit clunky when acted out and here was proof of that.

But the children in this matinee performance were rapt throughtout. I heard only one word uttered, a muted “scary”. That would have been music to the ears of all concerned.

Heaven Eyes is at Queen’s Hall, Hexham, on October 21 and 22, Arts Centre Washington on the 23rd, Caedmon Hall, Gateshead, on the 28th and 29th and Phoenix Theatre, Blyth, on November 11. Details on www.tsf.org.uk

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