REVIEW: RED (Polka Theatre)

Polka Theatre has finally reopened its doors after two and a half years, following major refurbishment works which coincided with the Covid-19 pandemic. This children’s specialist theatre in Wimbledon is a venue that we have actually never visited before but Mummy and the munchkins put that right this weekend with a trip to see their new show, RED.

RED is Polka’s second Little Red Riding Hood inspired show of 2021 (following Maanika and the Wolf which ran at their pop-up venue in Wimbledon Centre Court Shopping Centre this summer) and the first to grace their shiny new building. Performed in promenade (i.e. the audience follows the actors into different scenes) the show works as a tour of the exciting new spaces at the venue, showing off the impressive facilities including an indoor play den and an amazing sensory space with interactive projections. (The refurbishment works also include a lovely cafe and an outdoor play area in which many of the young audience members could be found both before and after the show.)

Unusually for a production aimed at ages 6+ RED uses no spoken word at all. Instead, this visual and physical storytelling production (with integrated BSL) conveys the story via movement, sound effects and sign language. It’s highly engaging but does require quite a lot of concentration, particularly in the opening scene where the specific plot points are a little hard to understand. It’s easy enough to get the broad gist which is that Red (Zoe McWhinney) has gone missing and we need to follow the Woodcutter (Bea Webster) to find her. It’s also apparent that we might meet a wolf (Ciaran O’Brien) on the way, but the more detailed storyline involving a power struggle between a wolf pack and Queen Sukotai is only really clear if you read the programme. There is also a sub-plot with an environmental angle which is rather more accessible and makes excellent use of the venue’s interactive sensory projections.

Rachana Jadhav’s set design is a particular highlight, with each of the three performance spaces feeling very different and really giving a sense that we are on an adventure as we follow The Woodcutter on their journey from woods to swampland to castle. The final scene is especially exciting and even a little scary, with Ciaran O’Brien masterfully transforming into Alpha Wolf. Although seated at this stage, the audience remain fully immersed in the action as they help Red and the Woodcutter to scare off the wolf and restore peace to the land.

Perhaps an unusual production for the grand re-opening of the venue, RED is certainly a bold choice which gives families plenty of scope for discussion afterwards. Mummy heard a couple of little girls talking about the environmental message in the playground after the show so it was clear that this scene had real impact. Crotchet struggled a little with interpreting the plot as she tends to need unambiguous words to convey meaning, but this meant that we could have a conversation about how deaf audiences feel when theatre doesn’t incorporate sign language. (Mummy would be really interested to hear from BSL users who have seen Red as she is aware that this review is only able to cover things from the perspective of a hearing family.) With a cast and creative team including deaf, disabled and LGBTQ people, Red also provides plenty of opportunities for wider conversations celebrating diversity and representation in theatre. Of course, while theatre can be thought-provoking and conversation starting, it’s also important that it is entertaining. So Mummy will give the last words of the review to Quaver, whose response to Mummy’s post-show questions was just to shrug and say “well, it was Little Red Riding Hood wasn’t it? It was good.”

RED is running at Polka Theatre from 25 September to 31 October 2021. We received complimentary tickets to the 2.15pm performance on Sunday 10 October.

Age recommendation: 6+

Photo credits: Ali Wright