Half-term heaven: The Dream Factory, House of Stray Cats

“Have you ever wondered where dreams come from? Or how they get into your head?” A thought-provoking debut production from House of Stray Cats, The Dream Factory takes us on an intriguing creative journey into the sometimes dark, sometimes brilliant world of dreams from the point of view of Sophie, a young girl who has suddenly lost her ability to dream. Picking up on the sensitive, courageous spirit of recent works for children like Inside Out, The Dream Factory eventually finds Sophie a new way to dream happily again, but, like life, this is isn’t a straightforward journey. Sophie has plenty of adventures along the way, some dreams that go wrong, and even a nightmare, all animated by beautiful puppets who swoop, swirl and swim before us, sometimes floating right up into the audience to interact with delighted children.

Sophie herself is a puppet, and we have a cast of three fully integrated actor-puppeteers who also appear as characters in the action in their own right, while also voicing the puppets we meet: Katriona Brown, Nicole Black and prime mover Maia Kirkman-Richards, who has also written and produced the show, as well as designing and creating the wider cast of puppets. A vividly evocative soundscape by Paul Mosley illustrates each change in mood as the story unfolds with a flowing combination of synths, piano, strings and other electronic samples, bolstered here and there with percussive ‘found sounds’ (like crunching glass) to give texture. We get plenty of good songs – setting Kirkman-Richards’ naively poignant lyrics to simple, clear melodies ideal for children – though the rest of the piece relies mainly on physical theatre and puppetry, largely ‘voiced’ with inarticulate gasps, cries or sighs, rather than any extended wordy narrative. This comparative wordlessness, outside the songs, allows the production to engage even the youngest children, while its elegant dreamscapes appeal visually to young and old. A simple set of white wooden furniture (designed by Maia Kirkman-Richards and Peter Morton) begins as Sophie’s bedroom, but wardrobe, bed and dressing table soon evolve dynamically into mountains, waves and the Dream Factory itself: like a dream, the action constantly develops, and often in unexpected or unspecified directions. Our own imaginations, happily, get to fill in the tantalising gaps.

The Dream Factory Sophie and Mum

Sophie and her mother. Puppets by Maia Kirkman-Richards

Although Inside Out and Up were groundbreaking in their unflinching psychological detail after the shiny Disney universe which had held sway over children’s entertainment for so long, emotional seriousness has always been the backbone of any good children’s story, all the way back to the dark, disturbing tales of the Brothers Grimm. The Dream Factory deals with profound themes of grief, loss and fear in a constructive, original spirit which does not seek to minimise or ignore pain, but rather to acknowledge it, accept it and watch life move beyond it into something not necessarily better, but different and more bearable. It’s an enchanting, enlightening and ultimately comforting watch, which can be enjoyed on many levels: and, in my goddaughter Athene’s words, “Children should see it because it’s there’s amazing, beautiful puppets and it’s about a child and dreams and so children will love it.” Quite.

Rating: Four

Reviewed at Norwich Puppet Theatre on 23 October 2017

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