Review: Wilkie Branson & Sally Cookson - Varmints - Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler's Wells

Performance: 17 & 18 May 2013
Reviewed by Rachel Nouchi - Wednesday 22 May 2013

Wilkie Branson in 'Varmints' Photo: Paul Blakemore

“Is it meant to be an animal or a human?” whispers my eight-year old, when a darkly-lit stage reveals its first Varmint, a strange hybrid creature, dressed in eccentric attire, unpacking a brown evacuee style suitcase rammed with treasured possessions to the sounds of melancholic female vocals inhabiting what seems to be a strange, apocalyptical world.

Varmints is Wilkie Branson’s latest offering in the arena of children’s dance theatre productions, based on Helen Ward’s elegiac tale about a community of creatures who thrive in woodlands only to find their natural habitat threatened by the evil forces of industrial development. The multi-talented Branson, an award-winning break dancer, film artist and recently made New Wave associate of Sadlers Wells, stars in the production, as well as choreographing and directing it in collaboration with Sally Cookson, Associate Artist of the Bristol Old Vic.

While rich in imagery, the source material offers only sketchy text to accompany the smoky-dark paintings by Marc Craste of an endangered species meeting its fate. The author dreamt it up in a quest to recreate the quiet of a long forgotten era. “There was once only the sound of bees and the wind in the wiry grass and the song of birds in the high blue sky”, the starting point for the show.

The first scene lulls the audience into a short-lived, playful mood: pleasing to watch. While there is an underlying feeling of strangeness created by the sparse setting and imaginative sound and costume design, the four dancers frolic and play together in the midday sun. They childishly forward-roll and bump and push in smooth moving sequences of choreography, their dark-brown noses twitch in leisure and eyes widen, fawn-like in friendly fun. The backdrop screen projects a beautiful woodland and nature is allowed to breathe.

An easy mood is quickly smashed in scene two and replaced by an abrupt change of pace as the Varmints’ world is blown apart and they take off into hiding. The music breaks from its playful melodies and becomes loud and aggressive and the dancers quick change from soft brown nosed Varmints to nasty drab grey drones slogging back and forth pushing large industrial tyres across the stage that start small and become bigger and more overwhelming as the scene unfolds and the wheels carve up the landscape. Playful movements are replaced with repetitive stamping, grinding, pushing and heads down, faces towards tyres.

What’s so brilliant about this section, and indeed the whole piece, is the way in which the sound composition swings from lyrical and melancholic to hair-raisingly fearful in a bat of an eyelid. When the Varmints turn into industrial drones, the response from the young audience was so dramatic that juniors felt the need to reach out for parental cover as proof.

Perhaps though, it’s the final scene that is most moving as we watch a singular Varmit slide across the stage, tiptoeing carefully from wheel to wheel, as if he were crossing mountains. He’s lost everything except for a single potted seedling and has resigned himself to the bleak underbelly of an unfamiliar landscape. Branson crawls out of his underground hiding place clutching his potted plant in search of light. The screen, used as a backdrop, projects a tiny pocket of light through a little window in a building and Branson pushes his prize possession towards the light. It grows roots and there is a squeal of delight in the audience. Through sheer resourcefulness, this Varmint has secured the continuity of nature against the odds.

Self-taught Branson is a magnetic force onstage and as the lead Varmint, inhabits his role with real conviction, not only in the high energy -spinning moments, but in the parts of the piece where there is barely any movement at all except for quiet contemplation as he gazes at his little plant pot, tending to it, donned in his bright yellow raincoat, a splash of colour against a bleak scene.

In his choreographed brand of hip hop and b-boy moves melded into contemporary flow, he directs the audience’s gaze to the ground in a clever gravitational pull. The troupe of four spin, swerve, crawl and slide along the floor – these are creatures who inhabit the undergrowth, they are not soaring high or leaping to the ceiling, they lie low and the movements furnish the scene well.

Costume designs by Holly Waddington offset the narrative as dancers parade about in 1920’s flying hats resembling floppy ears, floral shirts and multi-coloured knitted crochet tank tops, which wouldn’t look out of place in a local tearoom keeping the brew warm as a teacosy, before finding new life chopped and recycled into wearable garments all represent the handmade, the antithesis of their immediate environment under attack.

Colour is also cleverly used to change the mood when bright costumes are replaced by monochrome to evocate a world drained of life and light- all except the hero Varmint who proudly dons his bright yellow raincoat that wouldn’t look out of place in a production of Singin’ in the Rain.

The piece works brilliantly as a metaphor for teaching ecology and the value of nature in one forward roll after another. In fact, the creators believe that it should talk to children who are now living in areas of large-scale regeneration and have no say in their inherited world, a bit like the Varmints.

The author has said of her book that “ it would be nice to think that one day, before it’s too late, non-one will question the need for peace and quiet and time to think and the importance of wild places.” And although this sophisticated, whimsical, eccentric 50-minute wonder leaves many questions open to interpretation, the production imparts this message wholeheartedly and it certainly spoke in volumes to the children in my row.

Varmints is touring the UK and returns to London for performances at Stratford Circus on 20 & 21 June.

Rachel Nouchi is a former dancer and journalist who has written about media and the arts for a range of magazine and newspaper publications from Screen International to the FT.

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