Discovering the Magic of Early Years Theatre – Part 2

I’ve had the unusual privilege of experiencing three early years theatre shows in one week – how exciting! Being the glutton that I am for hunting down excellent quality work, I had high expectations and wasn’t at all disappointed by any of the three pieces I saw. Over three weeks, I’m bringing you a review of each one in turn, and highlighting some of the key features of the magic of early years theatre. So grab a coffee and your diary in case you want to book your own private viewing!

I Believe in Unicorns by theatre company, Wizard Presents, with Danyah Miller in the solo role.

This intimate show is set in a library full of books that hold more than stories within their pages. It is a tale of the power of books, and the bravery of a young boy called Tomas who loves playing in the mountains where he lives and hates reading and school. Tomas’ world is turned upside down the day he meets the Unicorn Lady (performer, Danyah Miller) who helps him engage in stories beyond the struggles of reading, and is rewarded with his loyalty as he tries to rescue the books from their burning library during a war-time raid.

A slightly less linear narrative, this beautiful story is clearly aimed at slightly older children than very early years but nevertheless utilised open-ended, stylised techniques more generally employed in early years theatre, which was great to see.

The humorous introduction broke the ice / fourth wall concept very quickly as the story teller brought the audience in as characters within the story. Her beguiling and gently persuasive personality made any audience members’ avoidance tactics impossible to sustain! This unusual start to the performance indicated that adults and children alike would be warmly engaged with the story as it unfolded. And so we were.

A superb adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s tale of the same name, the story unfolded over several chapters of the performance, one intricately leading the audience deeper into the next. The set comprising several stacks of books appeared simple and yet was anything but. Clearly a great deal of pondering and trying out of ideas had taken place in order to make the complex technology disappear into the story. This, of course, is the art of enabling a great story to shine out without being distracted by, or sometimes smothered in, half-baked technical wizardry. Thankfully, this was not the case here and, as my daughter aptly remarked, we were simply amazed at how the storyteller remembered which pop-up/projector/string/paperchain book to open next without a hint of a pause; so numerous, and yet so precise, were the cues for the various technical elements.

How the story would have been played out without these technical props, I’m not sure, as these were the elements that caused gasps of surprise and wonder from the children. From the intricately carved pop-up houses with internal lighting, the projections of fire onto their walls, the paper-chain ladders, kites and people that popped out of book after book, right through to the Russian doll concept of a book-within-a-book that children marvelled at until they didn’t believe anything else could emerge from the seemingly last tiny book. And yet it did!

And yet, I suspect that, technical wizardry or no, so much of the transformational ebb and flow of this story rested on the brilliant writing by Morpurgo coupled with the superb sensitivity of the actress/storyteller herself. With enough presence to fill the Albert Hall, we were transfixed by her continual dance from book to book, hanging on her every word, amazed by the next thing, and then the next as she revealed each chapter in her story, and enraptured by her sense of wonder that mirrored, and gently parodied ours. She responded to each child’s contribution with intuitive skill, somehow managing to communicate with each individual child and incorporate their ideas with such respect as if she had never heard them before. And all without a hint of patronisation. The professionalism with which her role was played out and her relationship built with the children was, in itself, a joy to experience.

Nevertheless, this story was meant for older children and, at the point at which the story began to reveal its darker side, the attention of the younger ones could no longer be held. The dynamic changed, requiring an intensity of concentration that the older children were only too willing to give, so immersed where they in Tomas’s life. The presence of the restless younger siblings in the venue meant that some of the subtler parts of the story were lost towards the end, and some of the magic was broken as the storyteller tried to continue through noisy outbursts, unapologetic set-walkers finding their way to the toilets through all the books, and apologetic parents retrieving their stray toddlers. But persevere she did without so much as a bat of an eyelid, and the story was concluded in a strange, slightly disconnected, twist of the tale as the magic Unicorn became a magic Narwhal (whale) with the help of Noah’s ark which made a surprise appearance at the end of the story.

Whether I had been too distracted by the natural goings on of young children, or had too much village hall tea I’m not sure, but the ending did seem slightly at odds with the rest of the story which had previously revolved round the life of a transformed character and the rescue of many treasured books. Whereas all of a sudden, we were transported in to Noah’s ark, floating on a large wall-paper roll of sea (which I thought was going to be cleverly used as a mechanism for a magnificent final projection but, alas, it was simply a roll of sea), and left to swim with the Narwhals. I couldn’t help but feel that the roll of sea was just getting in the way of all those beautiful books from the rescued library that held so much magic, I just wanted to keep looking at them and, perhaps, even touch them…

However, this was a mere nit-pick in what was a truly charming and beautifully played out piece – well worth seeing if you get the chance. Again, the production provided plenty of opportunities for teachers and parents alike to extend learning through storytelling, character building, story games, role play, and reading activities. More information at:

Author and reviewer, Ruth Churchill Dower, is the Director of Earlyarts

Image credits: Richard Davenport for Wizard Presents