‘She’s out of the woods now’, people will say, carefully couching the reality of serious illness in the language of whimsy. But where are the woods? What are they actually like? This dark family show confronts the thorny questions of illness, trauma and fear of what comes next.
Eleanor is a nine-year-old girl who’s being operated on for a heart condition. She’s played by a skinny, moon-faced puppet, and given a wonderfully fragile voice by Bethan Kate. Her journey through a dimly-lit forest is an echo of Alice in Wonderland: eloquent child meets a bestiary of nonsensical creatures. But here, each new species is an emblem of the stages of grieving: think angry wasps or ostriches in denial.
Jonathan Leach’s book and lyrics have an appealingly old-fashioned feel, with this very English crew of fantastic beasts revelling in whimsy and wordplay as well as misery. Their wonderfully detailed, witty costumes and careful characterisation get the audience giggling, even if Eleanor’s face is incapable of expressing anything but wide-eyed wonder. Leach's songs are accomplished, too, achieving a gritty, mesmeric sense of menace.
Sometimes, the darkness threatens to overwhelm Heartwood. It might be healthy to acknowledge negative emotions, but this felt like revelling in them. Without offering coping strategies or rays of hope, its relentlessly bleak atmosphere might well unsettle rather than comfort kids. Still, for fearless families, this is an intriguing hour in the woods.