Catherine Wheels are innovators in work for younger audiences. Previous Total Theatre award winners, with early-years production White, their current show (which has already scooped a Critics Award for Theatre in Scotland) is an exciting promenade piece for older children. We are met on the steps to the basement by Dr Broderick Mackenzie, welcoming our group to the tour of The Mackenzie Institute for the Encouragement of Vocal Harmony. His golden, dulcet tones deliver us into the bowels of Summerhall where a series of different rooms and environments await. This atmospheric and at times quite thrilling promenade performance starts off light, chirpy and pastel-coloured as we are disinfected, guided, and given talks and demonstrations in a series of rooms whose design (Karen Tennant) feels like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory come to life.
Dr Mackenzie’s daughter Beatrice adds a note of disquiet from the beginning. She seems somehow ill at ease as the tour is conducted and it becomes clear that all is not as it seems in the treatments that are conducted for improving the voices of those who have been admitted to the Institute.
Robert Alan Evan’s story slides from a witty and delightful tour into a moody and atmospheric exploration of what happens when voices are silenced. The children in the audience will find the transition quite challenging and it becomes clear why Catherine Wheels recommends this performance for those aged 9 and over, as we are led into secret and hidden areas where voices have been removed and taken away. Suddenly it’s less Willy Wonka and much more a dark version of The BFG as the collection of voices – all from women and girls – are trapped and imprisoned.
The production team and cast skilfully handle the entire experience. Catherine Wheels strikes just the right balance of reassurance and unease, creating rooms and areas with design, sound and lighting that keep the audience guessing – it’s never clear what is going to happen next and the children are torn between the temptation to hide behind the adults with them or lead the charge to discover the next secret.
Full of atmosphere and mystery, the cast of three all perform brilliantly, the direction and design confident and assured, the sound (Danny Krass) and lighting (Kate Bonney) of the highest quality. The Voice Thief is another theatrical triumph from the ever-excellent Catherine Wheels.