Annie Rigby’s appealingly small-scale touring production for Unfolding Theatre takes its cue from the reputedly dreamily exquisite Alessandro Baricco novel upon which it’s based.
Given the title Lands of Glass you might expect the show’s abiding tone to be either delicate, or shattering, or both. It’s the former that applies here. What’s more, Rigby and company’s response to their source material is unusually apt. Among Baricco’s leading characters is the owner of a glass factory. It is therefore fitting that this stage adaptation is a piece of musical theatre featuring instruments made (lovingly, I’d wager) of glass. Including marimbas, chimes, a suite of glass harmonicas and, according to the press information, something called a ‘Sauvignon-blancophone,’ they’re all initially packed away in pale wooden crates and only quietly revealed as the story begins to unfold.
Baricco’s novel is set in an imaginary European town called Quinnipak, and in an unspecified era. Chief among his small gallery of other characters are the globe-trotting factory owner’s sublimely beautiful wife, and an eccentric composer and his adopted son. The latter is destined to leave home once he grows into the man’s jacket in which he was found as a baby.
I’m guessing that it’s exactly this kind of quixotic thread that Baricco used to weave his prose. Perhaps it was tricky to theatricalise them without waxing all twee. And yet somehow Rigby and a cast of five manage to mainly avoid the pitfalls of cuteness into which they might’ve stumbled. The show has an elusive yet often engaging lightness of touch, plus at least one striking design choice (when a marimba becomes a receding railway line), nicely unforced bits of audience participation (involving members of the public using electronic megaphones) and a near-epiphanic passage when Beccy Owen, who functions as a sort of narrative fulcrum, vocalises in a beautifully raspy, wide-ranging way the song of a dying man.
The plotline of Lands of Glass entails some pretty major life-changes, including death, and attendant choices and consequences. Bad/sad things happen to a handful of fictional people whom we maybe really don’t know all that well, but it all seems to be wrapped up in a very agreeable cloak of poetic romanticism. The actors and musicians strike a good balance between gusto and grace. Apart from the aforementioned song, I wasn’t as moved by the performance as I’m guessing I might be if I were to read the novel. Still, there’s something, well, special going on here. Credit, too, to principal composer, onstage drummer and bandleader Tom Bancroft whose music gently slides the show along.