Uplifted: Black Swan’s The Red Balloon

Released in 1956, Albert Lamorisse’s film The Red Balloon is a near-wordless story of a boy and an almost-sentient balloon in post-war Paris. It’s a beautiful film, whimsical and charming to boot, but rewatching it now, there’s a curious emptiness in the film which makes it even more poignant. This production, adapted by Hilary Bell from Lamorisse’s film (not the subsequent slightly over-sentimental book he fashioned from it) and designed by India Mehta, takes note of this emptiness and creates a poignant piece of theatre which never feels forced or indulgent.

The play (and film) follows Pascal, a friendless young boy, and his lonely and at times curiously desperate relationship with a large red rubber balloon. When the balloon is threatened by a gang of bullies – cleverly evoked here using shadows – he tries to outrun them, but you can’t hide a balloon like that for long in bleak brick alleyways. Bell’s play introduces three characters not seen in Lamorisse’s film – a suave cat, a nervous rat, and a bird-brained pigeon – and uses them, Greek chorus-style, to comment on, frame, and usher in the action, often using rhyming couplets.
Directed and choreographed by Chrissie Parrott, some of the production’s strongest moments are in the ballet-like dances between characters and the balloon, the beautifully wordless moments which show Pascal running through the streets of Paris, of being followed by the balloon, of exploring the world around him. India Mehta’s set – dominated by two towers of doors, flaps, umbrellas, chimneys, railings, and staircases – spin and move to evoke different parts of the city, cleverly playing with scale, as in the production’s final moments. Mehta’s costumes are largely muted, using a similar pallet to her set, and evoke the sombre world of Lamorisse’s film – of his Paris – and use the balloon to offset this to beautiful effect. Trent Suidgeest’s lighting is rich and colourful, adding mood with a deft touch, and creates an almost fable-like storybook atmosphere. Ash Gibson Greig’s score and sound design, almost entirely through-composed, adds subtle flourishes and enhances the mood with warmth and deceptive simplicity.
Parrott’s cast of five children (who share two roles on alternate performances) and four adults deftly navigate the play’s demands, with the adults often deploying a quick change of coat or hat for a new character. As in Lamorisse’s film, there’s a curious lack of parent-aged characters here, perhaps as a reflection of post-war life, and the adult cast have a healthy amount of fun with these briefly glimpsed older characters, with a special mention to St John Cowcher’s headmaster (and as the balloon’s ‘voice’), and to Sarah Nelson’s suave and velvet-voiced Cat. Taking a leaf from Lamorisse’s film, Bell’s play scatters dialogue throughout the play, but doesn’t rely on it to tell her story; that comes from the scripted interactions between characters, the balloon, and their environment, and the spoken and wordless elements work together to create a portrait of the city which amplifies the loneliness Pascal must be feeling, the loneliness and desire for companionship which his balloon represents. While some of the dialogue is lost amongst the score and sound design, there’s a sombreness to several of the lines which further highlights the melancholy underneath the whimsy in the tale, and it is to Bell’s credit that it doesn’t feel forced, heavy, or imposed upon the simple story.

There are some really beautiful images and moments in this production which showcases everything the theatre is capable of doing well, and the final moment is simple, elegant, and rather moving. This is a strong and generous-spirited production, the first family production in Black Swan’s twenty-five year history, and I hope it is the first of many. At forty-five minutes, this production is sure to fire the imaginations of children and adults alike, and introduce a new generation to Lamorisse’s classic film.

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