Whether nursery rhymes had been written for pure entertainment — or whether they contain hidden meanings or origins — has been a matter of much debate for several centuries. And has remained rather indeterminate up to the present day.
Jason Cavanagh, of 5pound Theatre, has nonetheless clearly chosen to be on the more sinister side of this contention. In Kiss Them All Soundly, he subjects three nursery rhymes — Simple Simon, Mary Had A Little Lamb, Georgie Porgie — to his creative re-imaginings, and presents his version of the possible narratives behind those innocuous rhyming lines.
First, his Simon begins as anything but simple. In fact, Cavanagh’s Simon is aggressive, he is impatient, dismissive and irascible. We know he has a wife and a baby son. We think he is an overworked marketing executive hoping to hire imminent help.
Next, Kiss’ Mary, too, is not remotely like the carefree Mary of the children’s rhyme. Here, Mary is outwardly cheerful, yet intensely subdued. She seems to live in a world of her own, oblivious to her husband’s pleas for variety in the food she prepares for him, insistent on feeding their baby after he leaves.
And if these have not subverted your expectations yet, Cavanagh’s George is not quite the shady Georgie Porgie who kissed the girls and made them cry — or, not what we had imagined of him, anyway. Here, he is an elderly tottering kindly gentleman, with a shy affinity for a 16-year-old schoolgirl with whom he has struck up an acquaintance at the local bus-stop.
Still, not only does each tale develop to eventually substantiate the nursery rhymes we know so well (or, should, anyhow), they are woven together to form one single story, creating an evocative evening of pathos and pain.
The play, directed by Cavanagh himself, rolls forward in a circular, iterative style, as each vignette progressively intensifies, and reveals, and resolves, before leading to the final epiphany.
With effective use of lighting and the space, the writer-director deftly switches between the scenes of home, of office-turned-hospital, of the grassy roadside lane. The opening scene in which Susannah Frith, as narrator, stands before the closed curtain, that catches her looming shadow behind her, as she takes us beyond the point after Mary’s lamb has been turned away from school, is especially haunting, and serves as a precursor for what is to follow.
Frith, as Mary, vividly (if subtly) illustrates the ominous metaphor in the household rhyme: she carries with her apparitions of her dead baby everywhere she goes, just as Mary did her lamb wherever she went. Adam Willson, on the other hand, gives his character Simon a volcanic, explosive performance in which we see him mistaking a healthcare worker for a potential employee as he grapples with memories of his unfortunate encounter with the pieman(‘s truck) that has left him penniless, homeless — and, yes, simple.
More memorable, however, are Peter Rowley’s Georgie, and Brooke Smith-Harris who plays the 16-year-old opposite him. Although he starts out as a suspicious figure, leery of an easy prey, Rowley’s character turns out to be a poignant tale of accident and of loss — tragic enough, perhaps, to make girls cry. And while Rowley’s talent is indisputable, reminiscent in parts of Robin Williams, Smith Harris confidently holds her own, with her flawless expressions of unease, of fear, then friendship, and compassion.
Mostly, nevertheless, we are here to savour Cavanagh’s dark humour, his taste for the macabre, and uncanny ability to home in on the darker reaches of human ingenuity. The way he plays with theatrical unities, to fuse past and present, dreams and reality, in particular, hints at the psychological hinterland of his creative writing.
So, while there are admittedly areas of (what we think are, unintended) confusion — e.g. the all too nuanced changeovers by Frith between Mary and Simon’s wife, by Willson between Simon and Mary’s husband — and the curious use of canned responses (those you’d find in American sitcoms), this is a theatrically daring and disarmingly innovative piece of work.
And yes, Cavanagh has certainly done his mother proud, for it was she who modified the nursery rhyme — There Was An Old Woman Who Lived In A Shoe/She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do/She gave them some broth without any bread/
Then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed — to a version where the old woman Kiss(ed) Them All Soundly instead.