Duck, Death and the Tulip | Edinburgh Fringe 2014

For a show that is targeted at children, Duck, Death and the Tulip has more than a few adults in the audience. Unusual? Not really. Because one of the magical things about tracing the inevitable encounter between life and death is that it caters to the young and the young at heart.

Dying is often a subject that parents (in the past and even today) have supposedly shied away from discussing, especially with young children. But as Death himself points out, it really is Life that should be held responsible for ‘colds and whatever else ducks catch’ during this time on Earth.

Death is simply waiting. To be seen.

The story by Wolf Erlbruch is lyrical; not didactic or polemical. And this adaptation for the stage by Peter Wilson, directed by Nina Nawalowalo, is sheer poetry through puppetry.

Against a shimmering sun a world comes into focus. Duck gobbles down a grub for breakfast, a lone tulip provides her with a moment of euphoria and she makes a new friend who, despite his rather morbid appearance, is actually ‘rather nice’. And bringing this narrative to life is Gareth Farr’s exquisite composition: an ideal accompaniment, giving the story a tenderness that is appreciated in the subtleties of the music.

It is an example of children’s theatre that raises and challenges the expectation of what theatre for young audiences should be – and how it should be made.

Founder of Little Dog Barking Theatre and also chief puppeteer for Death, Peter Wilson is clearly dedicated to offering a special experience of theatre to his audiences, especially children. For that reason Death is not only a morbid puppet dressed in tweeds but also a kind, gentle man. One who graciously hands Duck (much to her surprise) a cup of tea and befriends her as they take a jaunt to the local pond; scale a very high tree and cuddle up after their gallivanting to have a snooze as the seasons change.

But this is not a sad story. Or even a fatalistic narrative. It is a deliciously curious, honest and at times simply irreverent tale about a duck, death and yes, a tulip too.

And it is the humour that makes this 45 minute production both powerful yet poignant. One of the most memorable moments is when, after taking a dip in the pond, Death, rather chilly and shivering, is gently told with a cuddle that his new feathered friend prefers him ‘warmed up’ because otherwise… he might catch his ‘death of cold’!

The team under the direction of Nina Nawalowalo work together brilliantly. Wilson’s co-puppeteer Shona McKee McNeil is equally proficient and together they have a lightness of touch that brings their puppets to life. In addition to displaying a range of versatile skills with Duck, McNeil also brings flavour to the piece with a distinctive Scottish accent, adding an air of local authenticity as she points out the highlights of the Edinburgh city to her distinguished visitor.

And while the seasons are changing we have one character, quiet and unspoken who adds, without any loquaciousness whatsoever, the perfect beginning and end. Tulip. Single and solitary, the aphrodisiac to Duck’s senses, her companion on the final journey she never utters a word. She is simply present.

But that is not the end. Because so delicately arranged is this glimpse of life that as the sun once more turns to smile on this little world, Tulip once again returns. And so the cycle begins.

I believe that there is no one better to review a children’s show than a child. And Fraser (7) and Alice (3) Duffy displayed no ambiguity in their opinion: “We loved it!” they chimed.

This three-word wrap was followed by a few seconds of serious contemplation before the elder of my two volunteer reviewers quipped “Especially the skeleton puppet and the music”.

If there were any questions as to the suitability of Duck Death and the Tulip – well, from the mouths of babes, the show has been given its official stamp of approval.

Note:  The Star rating is not a precedent for Theatreview; it is a requirement of the Edinburgh Fringe.

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