It’s four o’clock in the afternoon but down in the gorgeous Scottish Storytelling Theatre it feels like it ought to be evening, with our feet up and our slippers on around a roaring fire, all the better to listen to and appreciate this charming, intimate piece of simple storytelling gold.
Niggle is a painter but he’s also a niggler, in the sense that he spends too much time on details, procrastinates and fidgets, and struggles to see the bigger picture. To put it as Tolkein does, he paints leaves better than he does trees. Although his leaves are beautiful “in their way” he is not a successful painter, as people and mundane tasks continually get in his way. In the back of his mind he is aware he must go on a long journey and soon, but when it comes, he is not ready for what lies ahead. It transpires that it was not what he expected at all.
Leaf by Niggle is not a well-known Tolkien story in the same sense as tomes like The Lord of the Rings, but it was written at the same time. It’s themes, which concern neighbourliness, dreams, the value of art in society and the fear of putting things off have convinced many Tolkien scholars that this is his most autobiographical piece of work, a working-through of some of Tolkien’s fears for his mortality and legacy. It is certainly true that there are no dragons, elves or hobbits making it arguably more true-to-life, something performer Richard Medrington is keen to point out in his introduction. We are free to leave he tells us, if we are disappointed.
There are also no puppets, and it is right that this seems strange as this piece is presented by The Puppet State theatre company. Medrington assures us the concept of the show was first pitched with puppets but they were later dropped. Medrington was however so devoted to the story he continued the project regardless, indeed development has been underway for over 20 years. Medrington is a bit Niggle-like it seems, in getting projects to fruition! But he has achieved in this production, long though it was in the making, in creating a piece of work that speaks to many people of all ages.
Richard Medrington is an enchanting storyteller, reciting from memory the entire text with just a few words omitted – although I don’t think anybody missed them! His voice is so soothing I almost shut my eyes to better appreciate it (something that comes I think from enjoying podcasts and audio books in bed!) but there is so much of interest to look at on the stage that would be a tragic waste.
If you have ever made a piece of theatre, you will surely have raided your own home or family home for props. Rather than smuggling them in, Medrington prefaces his performance by introducing them like old friends, and gives them starring roles in his own family stories which he shares by way of explanation. His mother’s sketch book (he didn’t know she painted, just like Niggle’s neighbours), his father’s old packing case, a miniature stepladder crafted by another close relative and many other odds and ends all take their places on the stage and become Niggle’s things. In this way, Niggle’s life is intertwined with Medrington’s and if you’re new to the story, it’s about to entwine with yours, too. It’s one of those tales that winds its way into your consciousness and colours the way you see your own surroundings. It’s stuck with me since I first read it 10 years ago, when I was first at University and trying to wrestle my own dreams into plans. By sharing his own personal connections Medrington opens up the possibilities of how the meaning of the story could be interpreted in the context of the captive audience’s own lives.
Niggle’s dreams are sweetly simple, and so is the telling of this story, but the humanity at the core of them is so much bigger. It is a tantalising dream to imagine your own creations made real for the benefit of your neighbour, and to be able to develop personal goals as well as to be useful. Niggle dreams in essence to connect with and learn from his neighbours, to reach a level of personal understanding we rarely achieve in a lifetime, to make the small man feel humble and yet important in his community. I believe these were Tolkein’s dreams, and I hope they are shared by this audience, too. Medrington’s task, like Niggle’s, was well worth sharing.
The Edinburgh Fringe Run has finished but future tour dates are available at www.puppetstate.com/