Edinburgh Fringe 2015
Fraxi is an Ash tree who protects and nourishes her fellow creatures by providing them air, shelter, and a place to call their home. In a beautiful mix of story, music and physical theatre we see her grow to maturity, to become Queen of the Forest. But nothing stays the same, change is happening all around the trees and tragedy strikes when an airborne disease, Chalara, reaches the forest. The Queen must die to preserve the woods around her, but her memory will live on in the music that her wooden trunk is later shaped to make.
The story of Fraxi Queen of the Forest, an ash tree in a Scottish forest, takes us on a journey both whimsical and grittily real. It is narrated by nine year old Ashley (Amelia Szypczynska) who introduces us to her grandfather and father as well as all the characters of the forest. Amelia’s delivery is clear and well paced – no mean feat for a real life nine year old – and the story captivates the audience from the moment she tells us that ‘trees are the lungs of the world’.
The play, written by Jack Dickson, is intended to stimulate children’s interest and awareness in sustainability and ecological issues such as Ash die-back. There is a lot of technical information included but in ways that make you wish all learning could be as entertaining. There is dance and clowning, dialogue and original music. Agathe Girard as Fraxi gives us a warm and likeable Ash tree, one whom we care about and are sad for when Chalara (die-back) attacks her. Melanie Jordan and Brendan Hellier create trees, humans and HB caterpillar. HB was a definite favourite with the children bringing a thread of clowning and humour – constantly hungry and asking members of the audience if they have anything to eat and generally feeling that life wasn’t fair. Something we can all identify with!
The costumes, designed by Annie Hiner with assistance from Yan Smiley deserve a review of their own. The attention to detail is extraordinary. Each one has clearly been carefully created to both fulfil its own purpose and to contribute to the overall concept of the story.
There are a few places where the action feels a little slow, for example, the dance sequence at the point where Woody has left to go to college; however the pace soon lifts again with the ever hungry HB!
The setting of the Royal Botanical Gardens is perfect for the play – but it is a little out of the way of the centre of the Fringe. However, it is well worth the effort to see this excellent show with added spectacular gardens – go the show and stay on to explore.
I didn’t have any children to take with me so I recruited a couple of helpers: Harry Johnson aged 7 and Violet Fleundy aged 9. They both loved it and thought they would tell their friends about it. Harry would tell his friends that it is ‘funny, exciting and brilliant’ and Violet that ‘it’s interesting, and you learn about trees and birds (including something surprising about Blackbirds), and that it is funny and lively’. Violet’s mother added that she thought the cast had a lot of fun performing it. The families there on the day that I went also enjoyed meeting the cast afterwards and seeing a display of information and an animation about the threat to the Ash trees.
Although the focus is on the trees and the changes in the forest, the story is also a metaphor for the changes we see as we go through life – growing up, becoming a butterfly and, eventually, death. But there is also a message of hope – Fraxi continues to contribute to Woody’s life in the music played on the instrument that her wood has made. In a nutshell everything changes in the forest but nothing ever truly dies.
I have often felt that the Fringe has a lot for very young children and a lot for older ons but little for the 8-12 age group. Fraxi Queen of the Forest is the perfect show for them. Intelligent, thoughtful, thoroughly researched and relevant, with beautiful costumes and first class performances.