Marianne Dreams, Moira Buffini’s adaptation of Catherine Storr’s 1958 tale of a young girl who survives illness by escaping into her drawings, is the Almeida’s first attempt at a Christmas family show. So it was with childish anticipation that Matthew Amer joined the first night audience.
How do you convey the difference between dream and reality on stage? In the case of Marianne Dreams, through music and dance, conjuring a world both wonderful and eerie into which Marianne escapes.
On her tenth birthday the story’s heroine falls ill, confining her to bed for weeks on end. To pass the time she draws, and it is to these drawings that she travels in her dreams. Yet she is not the only child there – there is another, Mark, who is also ill – and the world of her imagination is not full of sugar plum fairies but threatening rocks with ever watchful eyes.
Taking a cue from the recent production of Sunday In The Park With George, Anthony Ward’s design brings Marianne’s dream world to the stage using projection. Line drawings and shading appear and disappear from the back of the stage, while vividly coloured food, straight from a child’s mind, descends tantalisingly from above.
Paul Englishby’s music, slightly reminiscent at times of Howard Blake’s score for The Snowman, coaxes Marianne into her dream state, as she escapes from the confinement of her bed and exuberantly dances around the stage, filled with the passion of freedom. The clash of dance with more expected storytelling techniques helps to create an air of fantasy and unreal, defining the different worlds.
In the title role Selina Chilton has a tough job, being ever present on stage and driving the piece forward. It is just as well she spends some time tucked up in bed. Her Marianne is a wide-eyed, deeply imaginative and exuberant 10-year-old, with a lust for life that finds containment to bed an evil form of torture, but finds escape and companionship with her dream friend.
There is more to Storr’s plot – which has also been adapted for television, film and opera – than an escapist adventure story. Themes of friendship, the power of imagination and of battling illness and depression are central, but an understated performance from Sarah Malin as Marianne’s mother gives life to a woman left lonely, without a husband, and longing for a companion of her own. Mark Arends, as Mark, exudes a bitterness and anger that can come with a life-changing illness, yet also a will to survive.
While at times tense, even scary, Marianne Dreams provides an uplifting tale and a heroine whose vivacious imagination is an inspiration.
Marianne Dreams plays at the Almeida until 26 January.