Beneath the Banyan Tree – Reviews

National Tour – Canada

“When you see Anjali, the lonely new kid at school, trade her mouth-watering lunch of samosas and chapatis for a Wonder Bread sandwich, to fit in, you know that the forces of conformity are powerful indeed. Don’t do it, Anjali. Resist. In every possible way this country needs its immigrants to retain the variegated colours and tastes of home. That’s one of the byproduct lessons of Beneath The Banyan Tree, an appealing…production for kids from Toronto’s venerable Theatre Direct…On the surface, Emil Sher’s play is about tolerance: will little Anjali, a gifted 12-year-old dancer from India, survive her move to a blandifying alien culture?…But that’s not all Beneath The Banyan Tree is about. To be a kid set adrift, solo, in a foreign culture is to be a kid in need of stories. And like the emblematic tree of India, which puts down roots wherever its branches hit the ground, stories are always part of your luggage, no matter how far you travel. That’s the central metaphor — and in Lynda Hill’s beautifully designed production, it dominates the stage.”

Liz Nicholls, The Edmonton Journal

“Have your kids ever come home from school making cryptic references to a play they’ve seen at in the gym that day and left you wishing you’d seen it too and could be part of this conversation? Here’s your chance. Theatre Direct Canada… is offering families a rare opportunity to enjoy their production of Beneath the Banyan Tree this month and next. We had the opportunity to attend the first of a series of public performances. A thoroughly original production, the play uses a carefully measured blend of simple narrative and vibrant imagination, of schoolyard taunts and side trips into a fantasy storyland filled with puppets and dance to both entertain and educate. The story is familiar to any immigrant family: young Anjali, new to Canada from India, is desperate to fit in but secretly clinging to pieces of her culture that make her who she is. A cast of four versatile actors and dancers play both the school children and the creatures of Anjali’s imagination. With bold bright puppets and costumes, plenty of dance and a length of just under an hour, Beneath the Banyan Tree easily keeps even young children engaged. Yet its themes of intolerance, culture clash and friendship are sophisticated enough to interest older kids as well.”

Deanne Fisher, City Parent

“A gorgeous presentation of Indian dance and fable that’s just so sumptuous in the presentation of it. It’s really quite lovely, for adults, for kids, anyone that’s interested in it.”

Garvia Bailey, CBC Radio

“How to you get children to experience the magic of theatre? You take them to a show like Emil Sher’s Beneath The Banyan Tree… Director Lynda Hill has cleverly brought in choreographer Lata Pada to provide Bharatanatyam dance and other movement for the show, which has a special glow when the actors play animals… The production is a visual treat, too, with Cheryl Lalonde’s set and costumes drawing on common objects to create uncommon figures; the elephant, for instance, is created from two orange umbrellas. Michael Kruse’s lighting adds to the show’s magic, as does Edgardo Moreno’s music… The show is a treat for kids of elementary school age and up.”

Jon Kaplan, NOW  Magazine

British Premiere and National Tour

“This first staging of Emil Sher’s popular story reaches out in such admirable fashion. It draws children and their parents in and they are thoroughly absorbed. There is vivid, exciting colour in the costumes and the props, such as an adorable peacock fan, and sweet exhilaration in the free ranging physicality.
An interesting element is Sher’s dialogue. Pure and simple, yet having reassuring truths that children will recognize. They will respond to its clarity and immediacy.”

Kevin Berry,

“Every time I see a piece of theatre for children (and this one is aimed at children of 7+) I come away impressed and wonder why I don’t choose to see more. Partially, of course, it’s because these performances are usually during the day which can be difficult because of other commitments, but usually juggling those commitments is more than worthwhile.

Memo to self: see more children’s theatre!

Storytelling (three fables from the Panchatantra), puppetry, physical theatre (including some playground bullying), Bharatanatyam and traditional Indian music, as well as normal dialogue, combine to show how Anjali is able to reconcile the conflicting strands of her life and how Ajji and Savannah both learn to accept differences.

At an hour long, it gripped both children and adults (and this reviewer), enabling us to see both points of view and delight in their reconciliation. This is due to the well-crafted nature of the piece itself, to the bright, colourful and effective set and costumes (by Cheryl Lalonde), and, in particular, to the totally committed performances of the cast of four.”

Peter Lathan, British Theatre Guide

“This is supposed to be a show for the seven-plus brigade, but the colourful nature and musical content, plus the promise of an elephant, monkey and peacock, saw me chance the reactions of younger ones.

The heartwarming story of Indian girl Anjali (Archana Ballal) arriving in England to start a new life holds our attention because of her self-imposed pressure to hide her cultural identity.

The tale is cleverly played out to a background of reminders of what she has left behind: The Banyan Tree, India’s national symbol, talks to Anjali through her imagination as the three other cast members, John Afzal, Paul Conway and Grethe Jensen, switch between the characters in England, India and animal fables.

My own young companions loved Afzal’s dancing elephant and thought that Ballal and Jensen’s banter and slapstick as child and grandmother is highly amusing. More importantly, they’ll be back for more.”

Viv Hardwick, The Northern Echo

“The Machiavellian world of politics is remote from the playground humiliations and cruelties of childhood? It does not require a leap of imagination to disagree with that.

Abrupt changes of alliance, violence towards weaker factions, cultural imperialism: all have their equivalents in the best-friend betrayals, bullying and petty snobberies of school life.

With the premise that tensions within newly multi-cultural Britain are best tackled by instilling tolerance and understanding in children, this charming production aimed at over-sevens, invokes in Indian dance and fable the ancient Hindu morality tales of the Panchatantra, which used animal metaphor to instruct young princes in practical wisdom.

Emil Sher’s story has been adapted as an oriental Billy Elliot-meets-Aesop in the dinner break. Well, sort of, with a young Indian immigrant heroine who is happiest when using the expressive hand gestures of Bharatanatyam dance (subtly westernised) and unhappiest when suffering the slings and sniggers of a comprehensive.

The moral that comes over most strongly, to the insistent beat of the tabla, is “choose your friends wisely.” Others in the Panchatantra canon are “don’t make false accusations, strive to preserve friendships” and “truth will out.” Presumably for princes’ ears only is advice that deceit is stronger than brute force.

Darlington-based Theatre Hullabaloo and Theatre Direct Canada, of Toronto, who provide director Lynda Hill and choreographer Lada Pada, are to be congratulated on a stimulating exercise in international co-operation in the cause of improving the lot of the socially excluded young.”

Peter Ridley, Darlington & Stockton Times