Jeanne and Chrissie are camping out in their grandparents’ back garden. They’ve got a tent strung with bunting, they’ve got a torch, and, to their initial horror, they’ve got a world of creepy crawlies creeping and crawling all around them. Based on the relatively unknown children’s book by Jeanne Willis and Gwen Millward, Metta Theatre’s The King of Tiny Things brings a warming and pleasingly progressive story of sibling friendship, growing up and facing your fears with the mixture of circus and story-telling that is fast becoming their calling card.
Adapted by director Poppy Burton-Morgan, the story blends familiar childhood tropes and logic (the gradual introducing of characters, the solving of problems, comforting repetitions) with an appealing thread of melancholy, as Jeanne and Chrissie come to understand nature as a process of change and rejuvenation. Timorous at first, but growing in confidence as the night progresses, the girls meet a slug who’s lost his slime, a desiccated worm, a daddy-long-legs with one leg too few, a caterpillar on the verge of metamorphosis, and the magical King of Tiny Things, a glowing fairy-child that uses its magic to help restore the ailing bugs.
There are some beautiful moments, particularly as the light fades and we see a swarm of fireflies represented by glowing balls that fly through invisible hands, and as in Metta’s earlier Monkey & Crocodile, the use of circus skills to create instantly recognisable characters and tease out aspects of their personalities is gorgeously handled. Under Burton-Morgan’s direction, the talented ensemble has created several gorgeous vignettes to bring life to the residents of the garden.
Design by William Reynolds and costume designer Kate Lane is also a gorgeous thing – with a garden sprouting juggling-club flowers and a giant blue pond made simply and effectively from a crash mat. Lane’s insect costumes and Yvonne Stone’s puppets are a delight, and everywhere there’s a sense of care and free-wheeling inventiveness. Rosamond Martin and Maddie McGowan are effortlessly charming as the two young sisters, but there’s also terrific work from Elise Briccolani as the shape-throwing Slug and Ludo Helin as the hapless, tumbling Caterpillar.
But as well-realised as the scenes are in isolation, they somehow never cohere into a persistently engaging plot. The relationship between the King of Tiny Things and the natural world is ultimately pretty obscure, and as cheering as the message to be accepting of the differences of others may be, its delivered in a too-languid fashion – it’s never particularly complex, but it’s somehow still more than a little confusing.
The sense of slight tumult is compounded in the Udderbelly by the noise bleed problems that have always beset it, but even taking that on board the songs and music by Jon Nicholls are unappealing. Squelchy and unmemorable, with lyrics obscured by recorded guide vocals, they drag scenes down rather than buoying them up, and stretch certain sections out way past their welcome.
So it’s a mixed bag of creepy crawlies in the night garden. There’s ingenuity and magic to spare, and a message we can all get behind, but it never quite emerges from its cocoon – it’s too much gloopy Caterpillar soup, never quite unfurling and taking wing.
Part of the Udderbelly festival.