REVIEW: The Red Balloon | Black Swan State Theatre Company

Photo by Gary Marsh

The Red Balloon by Albert Lamorisse, adapted by Hilary Bell, presented by Black Swan State Theatre Company

The Studio Underground, 10 October, 2015

Sometimes the one thing that affects me most about a theatre production is the set design. A beautiful, functional, clever set design is a wonder of creativity, ingenuity and craftsmanship, not to mention teamwork, so I feel it’s justifiable to say that this is the best thing about a show, the thing I enjoy the most, or the thing that gives me the strongest reaction. There will probably be people who would discredit this standpoint of choosing aesthetics over content, performance and direction.

Perhaps some would see this as a slight to those other elements of a show. For instance, you might hear people engaged in the following exchange: “How was the show?”…”Uhmm…the set was nice…” They say it with a poker face, and what they really mean is, “It was terrible, and the only positive thing I can muster is that ‘the set was nice.'”

But I’m going to stand firm in my assertion that the most impressive things about Black Swan State Theatre Company’s adaptation of the Academy Award-winning French film short are its aesthetics. And with the ever-impressive talents of designer India Mehta on this project, it was always going to be that way. Pair her imaginitive creations with the likes of lighting designer Trent Suidgeest, and put Ash Gibson Greig in charge of the music, and you have a trifecta of gorgeous.

And so the chills that went up my spine and the sudden welling behind my eyes were purely from the combined effect that this triumvirate of designers created as the lights came up and the music took me away. Mehta appears to have taken cues from both the original film and perhaps the films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and made them her own, creating a small corner of Paris with just a backdrop and two twirling trucks that house an apartment and a patisserie on one side, and a school and a church on the other. She’s summed up both the charm and the grit of that wondrous city and turned it into something that generously serves the simple little tale of the boy with the red balloon.

My second favourite thing about this piece was Chrissie Parrott’s sneaky choreography that emerged naturally from the action. It was a lovely embellishment to the basic story that really worked to add something special to this interpretation. The short film is only half  an hour or so long, and it seems to travel miles through the city, so showing this journey in a restricted theatre space presents a challenge. The coordinated movement/dancing without words serves as a companion to the original ideas expressed in the film.

Less successful in this adaptation were the addition of three anthropomorphic characters that narrated and accompanied the little boy Pascal’s journey. Sometimes their presence and their dialogue somehow confused the proceedings, cluttering certain scenes up a bit. That being said, I’m not sure what kind of alternative could have been arranged; the film speaks for itself but a staged version aimed at capturing the attentions of little folks needs some assistance. And a talking cat, rat and pigeon are as fun an idea as anything else, and are, of course, appropriate to the milieu.

The Red Balloon achieves without question one of the most important things about children’s theatre: it finds a lovely middle ground where all ages can find enjoyment and experience wonder.