What a handsome display of design. What a sparkling flash of light. What heart-rending determination. It's hard to deny Branar's elegant How to Catch a Star, based on Oliver Jeffers's picture book, some extravagant praise.
We can sometimes presume that theatre for young audiences always needs the interaction and showmanship. Some of Louis Lovett's performances, for instance, dart excellently between grandiose gestures and a gossipy rapport with the audience, giving them a chance to assist the narrative.
Using a different approach, director Marc Mac Lochlainn and Branar have made impressive inroads with their quiet, absorbing productions. 2014's Bláth, an adaptation of John Light and Lisa Evan's picture book The Flower, showed us an artist nurturing a plant to bloom, introducing colour into an otherwise grey city poised for redevelopment. It conveyed more emotion with its subtle touches than many larger productions are able to muster with bigger resources.
That's a testament to Branar's blend of puppetry, music and design, putting faith in young audiences to piece a play together for themselves without instruction from a narrator.
How to Catch a Star is the story of a young boy, first seen on a rooftop, scanning the night sky like a professional astronomer. When an awesome bright star floats overhead, he becomes obsessed with catching it. At first glance, this seems a reassuring depiction of youthful determination. The boy brainstorms ideas in his room, which, in Maeve Clancy's attractive set, takes its place in a storybook world, complete with a charming glade and a harbour. He tests a rocket ship for lift-off. A net might do the trick. In Suse Reibisch's handsome puppet design, the boy is a picture of tenacity, given painstaking detail by performers Grace Kiely and Neasa Ní Chuanaigh.
Yet, against Colm Mac Con Iomaire's elegantly melancholic music, there is a growing sense of sadness. A subplot involving a hungry bird thwarted by a cunning worm is a reminder that ambition doesn't always match reality. The production doesn't hold back the boy's frustrations when his plan falls apart. That resembles a work sympathetic to those awaiting their dreams to come true.
Aspiration is to be commended but Jeffers seems to be suggesting that it alone is not enough. The final scenes find touching gestures of friendship, kindness and care. On several levels, then, it's a moving celebration of a child's triumph.
Come From Away, Abbey Theatre, Dublin Until January 19
Who is the central character in Irene Sankoff and David Hein's reassuring Broadway musical, inspired by a Canadian town that welcomed grounded passengers on 9/11? Is it Claude (Clive Carter), a cunning mayor charged with the safety of 6,700 visitors during a crisis? Or Beulah (Jenna Boyd), a dedicated volunteer anticipating a town's needs in extraordinary times?
As it happens, Come From Away belongs to everyone in this rather busy musical. Director Christopher Ashley's production marshals an unflagging cast that transforms between the bewildered staff of the mayor's office, and a group of stranded and uncertain passengers.
The weary visitors find themselves soul-searching, romancing, heart-breaking. Like I said: busy.
To some, the national theatre's partnership with an imported commercial production will raise eyebrows, and the production certainly seems like a wager. It's as if with enough emphasis on Irish-Canadian accents and céilí music, it could pass itself off as an Abbey production.
If, frustratingly, no individual stories in the plot seem prioritised, that's because Come from Away is more committed to the inspiring hospitality of an entire town, on a day the world was shaken.
As a result, it's difficult to single out a single performance (though Cat Simmon's Hannah, the worried mother of a New York City fire-fighter, comes close).