Sparkle and Dark’s decision to take an untested play, The Girl With No Heart, to the Edinburgh Fringe instead of its safe bet is risky but admirably bold. The gamble deserves to pay off.
You may recall that one of my Fringe recommendations from two months ago was a play by a little-known group called Sparkle and Dark’s Travelling players. Well, the Edinburgh Fringe isn’t for another month but I’ve seen it already, in Chatham, Kent. (In case you’re wondering what I was doing in Kent, I was already in London for a completely different reason and by sheer coincidence this was on nearby. I’m not rich enough to travel over half the country for one play.) I will come on to this play in a moment, but first a bit of background info.
I first came across Sparkle and Dark two years ago at the Buxton Fringe with The Clock Master, which I was planning to avoid as it was listed in “For Families” instead of “Theatre”, and I generally avoid anything that might remind me of horrible garish pantomimes. But after repeated recommendations I relented, and the first thing that struck me about the sell-out performance was how many people had turned up without children. Do not underestimate how significant it is: writing for children is not the easy hobby many people think it is, but writing something that appeals to both children and adults requires real talent. This deservedly got the award for best new writing at the 2010 Buxton Fringe, and in 2011 toured again successfully to both the Buxton and Brighton Fringes. Had this toured to the Edinburgh Fringe, it doubtless would have done well. But, instead, and quite surprisingly, Sparkle and Dark have chosen to tour a different play by the same author, The Girl With No Heart. This is a big hurdle for any new writer in this situation: can the follow-up live up to the debut?
Well, the first and obvious observation is that the presentation of the play is very similar to The Clock Master – which is a very good thing indeed. From the moment you take your seat it’s clear you are in for something very different, with an intricate scene made entirely from paper. If there’s one issue I’d pick out, it’s that I think there needs to be some sort of sound before the play begins – probably the musicians playing some sort of opening music rather than sitting in silence – only because silence tends to give way to conversations from next door in the foyer. Apart from that, I have nothing to find fault with. The puppetry, origami, shadow images and mesmerising music once again come together for a slick and flawless production. I won’t single out individuals because this was clearly a team effort, just to say it has to be seen to be believed.
The difference lies in Louisa Ashton’s writing. Her Clock Master was very dark for a family-aimed storytelling play, but this goes to a whole new level. In this story, there are two parallel worlds. In one world, nothing bad ever happens, anyone can wish for what they want, and nothing bad ever happens. A curious girl travels to the other world, where she discovers children living in hiding from the unspecified “adult army”, at war for a cause no-one can remember. All around are the remains of devastation, and although this is never clearly stated, the clear parallel is nuclear weapons (indeed, it was a visit to Hiroshima that inspired this play). It is explained to the girl that it was thought that one single terrible thing might stop a lot of other smaller terrible things happening, to which she innocently asks if it would be better if no-one did any terrible things at all. And with her coming from a world where no-one dies, it is explained this is like going to sleep without waking up or dreaming.
The title means something more complicated than one might expect. In this world, the children carry their paper hearts outside their bodies, so the girl, with a similar heart to ours, is greeted at first with suspicion. If this all sounds confusing, I can assure you that I’ve seen the play and it works. But there again, I’ve seen The Clock Master first and knew what to expect. This is where I think Sparkle and Dark are taking a massive gamble. In Edinburgh, for the vast majority of the audience, this will be the first play of their they’ve seen. Will they follow it like I did? Same answer as to whether someone would pick up, mid-series, a TV programme about a guy who travels round in a blue rectangular thing: I don’t know. I’m certainly finding it harder to explain this play than most.
Sparkle and Dark think that The Girl With No Heart is their better play, and I think I’d agree, but if it was up to me, I’d have played it safe and gone for the other play. Had The Clock Master got to Edinburgh, it would have had everything going for it: solidly positive reviews from other two big fringes, a popular storytelling format to sell to punters, and the priceless niche of a play that appeals to all ages. This will be a lot harder to sell to children (I’ll warn you the ending is about as cheery and uplifting as any play about nuclear holocausts), and tricky to explain to adults. It’s a unpredictable wildcard, and the outcome could be anything from obscurity to the next When the Wind Blows.
But credit is where it is due: Sparkle and Dark know the risk they are taking, and have chosen to go ahead regardless. No matter how this works out, the courage they have shown to take this risk is admirable. And this one really deserves to get somewhere. If you’re coming to Edinburgh in August, I highly recommend putting this on your list.
The Girl With No Heart runs at the Bedlam Theatre on 3-25 August (except 13), 17:00 daily.