Count back from 100. 99, 98… the bed is stark white against the bare stage… 97… listen to the distant reassurances that it will be all right… 96… and what is it that will be all right, anyway?… 95... From the beginning this puppet show intrigues you. What is making Eleanor ill, what is she scared of, and will she make it back?
Waking in the strange, bewildering Heartwood, Eleanor finds comfort in the absent-minded and reassuring Badger. Together they try to find a way out; a way to outrun "The Evil", an echoing voice that terrifies all who hear it. With a feel of Carroll's Alice stories, accompanied by dance and song, we meet a host of eccentric caricatures in this strange land – and slowly we begin to discover more of Eleanor's story. She's a girl who has suffered loss and illness, and we join her in confronting her feelings.
Our heroine's allegorical journey is not subtle in its mirroring of the five stages of grief, but nor is it too forced about it. The songs and dances are well placed, and with its witty wordplay and serious theme, this musical does not talk down to its audience. As such, it's perhaps best-suited to native-English-speaking children who are mature for their age – though even teenagers and adults will find it charming and thoughtful.
The themes are intense and dark: depression, loss, and chronic illness all feature. Despite some comic relief, I felt an hour of this without an interval was a little too much for a children's show. However, it's great to see these topics being tackled in respect to younger people, who are by no means immune to such troubles – and children will relate well to what they see, making it an excellent conversation-starter for "big" chats.
All the characters are very well done but the ostriches, wonderfully over the top and under the sand, are especially humorous. If the choreography of their head-turning dance were just a little more slick, it would be perfect. Eleanor herself works well as a puppet, small and fragile but very endearing and engaging. The danger, however – which the actors did fall foul of on the day I attended – was that, in trying to fade into the background whilst they moved her, they often spoke their lines into the floor and couldn't be heard well.
This show does an admirable, brave job of taking on big emotional topics – and it tackles them with an excellent mix of humour, metaphor and respect. It is quite accessible without being patronising, and succeeds in being thought-provoking. By putting words to emotions and reassuring children of the normalcy of these feelings, Heartwood has great potential to help start discussions about difficult topics. And of course – it's enjoyable too.