Leaf By Niggle
Tolkien short story re-packaged and re-told by Puppet State Theatre Company
JRR Tolkien is regarded as one of the finest storytellers of the 20th century. So it’s slightly ironic that the strongest aspects of this new show from Puppet State Theatre are actually the bits that he didn’t write. Which is in no way detriment to Tolkien or his 1945 short story, Leaf By Niggle – more a testimony to solo performer, Richard Medrington and the personal memoir he surrounds it with.
Those who saw the hugely successful Man Who Planted Trees, which Puppet State toured at home and abroad for ten years, will know that Medrington can hold an audience. His calm, unhurried pace is like a salve on the soul, drawing you into another world with gentle wit and engaging banter.
Leaf By Niggle, as Medrington is quick to point out, has virtually nothing in common with the company’s previous show. There is not a puppet in sight, and the target age range is older, playing best to ages 10+ and adults. Yet the charm of Medrington’s delivery remains firmly intact.
He begins the show playing patience on a small card table. Scattered around the stage are objects and ornaments, some functional others purely decorative. Each has its own story to tell, and as he picks them up, Medrington shares their history with us. A sketchpad filled with beautiful paintings by his mother, a miniature ladder, top hat, decanter and row of books all left behind by assorted uncles and grandparents.
We haven’t had a sniff of Tolkien yet, but I for one would have happily listened to Medrington talk about his family heirlooms, and their associated stories, for the entire show. But, of course, Tolkien knew a thing or two about imparting tales too, and Leaf By Niggle is an intriguing, multi-layered story that leaves your pondering long after it’s finished.
The central figure is Niggle, a painter prone to procrastination, who embarks on a large portrait of a tree. Time is not on his side, as he rushes to finish the painting before heading out on a long trip. But distraction comes in many forms, in particular Niggle’s neighbour, Parish who has a series of requests which kind-hearted Niggle can’t refuse.
As the story unfolds, the line between fantasy and reality becomes increasingly blurred, leading to a confusion which is comfortably challenging rather than irritating. It could be an allegory for something bigger, an insight to Tolkien’s own way of working (he was a known procrastinator), possibly both or neither.
Medrington doesn’t tie it up neatly for us, leaving the audience to not only question Tolkien’s story, but what might lie in our own family history.