Adapted from Mac Barnett’s picture book of the same name, the Orange Tree Theatre’s Extra Yarn is aimed at the over threes crowd. One is dressed as an elf. Another has a tulle skirt that I envy. They are so small that despite the almost sold out theatre, the usually chockablock in-the-round seating felt spacious, even sparse. Unfortunately, the production, while clever and quick in places, also felt a little bare. The babble of children and flourish of string instruments valiantly filled the gaps. [Puzzled but delighted child: ‘I get to walk across the stage?’]
The basic premise of the story is simple. A little girl called Annabelle, played by the likable and expressive Genevieve Dunne, lives in a grey, oppressive town where loaves are still bought from Mrs Pendleton the baker and anything colourful is frowned upon. One day, while out walking her dog, Mars – who is ingeniously played by barks from the supporting cast – Annabelle finds a small box of seemingly neverending rainbow-coloured yarn. She begins by knitting an endearingly inexpert jumper for herself. And, after discovering that she constantly has leftover yarn, she knits the town out of its melancholia, one magenta pom pom at a time. Word soon gets out about Annabelle’s magical box of yarn and an evil Archduke from overseas (why is it always overseas?) arrives to steal the box while Annabelle is sleeping. [Anxious child: ‘Wake up! Wake up!’] [Other child: ‘It’s really sad.’]
Adaptor Elinor Cook manages to spin a 45-minute play out of this simple narrative by inventing backstories for Barnett’s characters. A bereavement in Annabelle’s family is hinted at; in an early scene her grieving father’s brusque behaviour sets up a storyline that is never fully realised or resolved. I found the additions extraneous and a little befogging. At one point, I confuse Annabelle’s father with Mr Crabtree. Mr Crabtree is in fact a separate character: an eccentric intellectual who never gets cold so has no need for a knitted jumper. Instead he gets a hat, to warm his brain. He also makes origami cranes and wistfully mentions having had a box much like Annabelle’s when he was younger. Presumably one full of paper. The magic of the paper cranes bolsters the magic of the extra yarn in what feels like an attempt to explain the origins of the town’s enchantment. [Elf child: widens eyes at paper crane wearing a knitted scarf.]
The production is nonetheless charming. And Kate Marlais as the Archduke and Antony Jardine as her bumbling minion were a runaway success with the children. For me, the supporting cast excelled as musicians and foley artists, most notably pianist Tarek Merchant. Compared with Tom Deering’s thoughtful music direction, Jessica Staton’s design felt somewhat rushed. Netting disguised as wool and inadequately sized snoods attempted to recreate Jon Klassen’s beautiful illustrations of a seaside town wrapped from the birds to the church in woolen jumpers. Perhaps I was expecting too much from the magic of the theatre, but I was disappointed. The intended audience certainly had an easier time suspending their disbelief. I saw tiny jaws drop as snow fell from the rafters. [Agape child: ‘IS THAT REAL SNOW?’]
Whilst it would be unreasonable to expect the production to succeed with the simplicity of Barnett’s story and Klassen’s illustrations, this adaptation feels simultaneously complicated and thin. In seeking to explain the magic, quite a lot of it is lost. But will children like Extra Yarn? Elated child says: ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’
Extra Yarn is on at the Orange Tree Theatre until 7th January 2017. Click here for more details.