Edinburgh Fringe 2017
A baddie in the form of a darkly-clad Duck has been trapped behind the musical stave in an unspecified earlier incident, and has evil plans to escape and wreak havoc across Treble Clef Island by reducing its inhabitants to ghostly silence. Cue a heartwarming if occasionally baffling tale of camaraderie, and some attempts at musical theory education, as Cockatoo leads the charge to save the day and reconsign Ducky to his prison behind the staging flats.
First things first – the music in this production is quite brilliant, and far superior to your standard children’s show fare. It’s written by The Hoosiers, a band I wasn’t familiar with but I’ve since done my research and am their newest (and oldest?) fan. There are choruses in this show that my wife and I have been singing for the past two days; the orchestrations are solid and varied; and the singing, provided not by The Hoosiers but by the cast, is spot on.
And you would hope for good music in a show that is, after all, about music. Treble Clef Island is a world where the notes on the stave are alive, and are embodied by animals beginning with the relevant letter of the alphabet. This is a great concept, with huge potential as an educational vehicle for musical theory. Some elements of music are covered to a greater or lesser extent: there is mention of tempo, harmony and alternative time signatures, and though only notes on the C major scale appear personified, there is a passing reference in the giraffe’s song to “the notes in between”. But most of the potential has not been mined, perhaps because we’re not really here to learn about music; we’re here to learn about friendship.
Even the theme of friendship isn’t quite explored fully, though, and is one about which we sometimes get mixed messages. Much more powerful, though covered only briefly, is the theme of how important (and how difficult) it can be to say sorry. Easily the best actor on stage is Cockatoo, who is luckily also the main part, and I found his “sorry” song deeply affecting.
There is hardly any time for us to get under the skins of the characters and explore their emotional journeys because there is such a massive amount of plot to cram in. The basic plot is simple enough – visit all the characters and get a part of the puzzle from each one to thwart the baddie – but aspects of it are unnecessarily convoluted. The conceit that the characters must “sing their note into something precious” seems plucked from thin air, and the doubling of parts – especially given that sometimes the actors are forced to play both their parts at the same time – place unnecessary strain on our ability to follow the story.
Most of the blunders of this production can be forgiven because the songs are so good and the cast are so full of energy. One aspect, though, left me decidedly uncomfortable – namely a bit of what seemed to me quite blatant racial stereotyping. I contacted the company about this, and got a good and thorough response, indicating that they’d considered the question fully at every stage of production and had at least satisfied themselves in this regard. Fair enough. All I can do, then, is describe what I experienced and let the reader decide for themselves:
I was initially delighted, at a festival that is so overwhelmingly white, to see an actress of colour represented in the cast. But my eyes widened considerably when I realised that the two parts this actress had been given were: firstly the reggae singer, and secondly the rapper. Is that progressive? Is it diverse? Is it inclusive? It’s a very difficult question. I’ll just leave it out there for discussion.
AnimAlphabet is aimed at 3-year-olds upwards. I brought my eight-month-old daughter along, and she was captivated throughout. There are shows out there that do a good job of playing to adults and their children in equal measure, and I wouldn’t exactly class this as one of them, but there’s plenty in here to delight children of a wide range of ages. The songs certainly deserve a greater airing, and the notes-of-the-stave-as-animals idea has potential as a TV series. There is much to recommend AnimAlphabet. This reviewer had a good time but remains somewhat ambivalent.