Calvino Nights

Presented by Mike Shepherd In Cahoots with the Minack Theatre & imPOSSIBLE Producing 1 May 2022 - 19 May 2022

The Minack Theatre and imPossible Producing

The wild possibility of fire, feast and fun-filled fiasco!

Join the marvellous Mr Calvino and his motley troupe of tale-tellers, song-makers and fire-raisers for an unforgettable ride through life told, quite literally, on a cliff-edge precipice! Be entertained by hapless thieves, very clever peas, daft billionaires and women who live entirely on wind!

Calvino Nights is a show for those who’ve lost their moral compass (it’s where you left it!) or for those who simply need a damned good night out!

Mike Shepherd writes: 'Italo Calvino is an Italian writer who collected aural tellings of folk tales and rewrote them with a lavish sprinkling of exaggeration.  Calvino Nights is inspired by a mix of several of these folk tales including the adventures of a boy the size of a pea, a skinflint miser, a woman who lives on nothing more than wind, there are hapless robbers, fallen angels, circus tricks, the cosmos and lots of fire !  

Calvino has inspired us for many years. Kneehigh shows The Wild Bride and The Wooden Frock were based on his folk tales. Last April we made a short film at Restormel Castle with director Joe Wright inspired by the Calvino story Princess and Peppernose - you can see it below!  Now is the time though to leave those screens behind ! Stories need to be experienced live, we all need live events!'

Calvino Nights is for children, their older brothers and sisters, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Review by Jenni Balow (2023)

This zany show is served-up on a stick, or several of them, and come to think of it, a huge number of sticks have been combined to build a centre-stage tree, with fire and music at its core.

Sounds weird, doesn't it? Well, it is an ingenious mix of sticks that make up a highly combustible entertainment that is set to thrill youngsters, and whole families, during the traditional Schools Week that is held at the Minack at this time of the year.

Even during the summer gales that marked the start of the show that will run until June 22, the risky business of juggling with fiery torches, surrounded by steam punk-style flame throwers and stoked-up braziers full of fire went ahead. Nothing is impossible for Calvino Nights.

It is Girum Bekele who deftly plays with fire. He is a brave juggler of flame, sticking with a pair of sticks to hurl torches high into the air, throwing in somersaults, and the funniest of characters  -  a tiny pea with a squeaky voice.

Using a set of puppets in a literally growing sequence, puppeteer Sarah Wright creates Pete, or should that be Pea-t? Girum is the full-size Pea-t, bouncing around the stage like the chick pea he portrays.

All of this fantasy is based on the folk tales of Italo Calvino, devised and directed by legendary Kneehigh Theatre founder Mike Shepherd, who co-wrote it with Carl Grose, Anna Maria Murphy and Tim Dalling, and presented and produced at the Minack by executive director Zoe Curnow.

Tim Dalling also plays a range of instruments with a pulsing on-stage band directed by Alex Lupo, that lurks inside the twig tree originally designed by Luke Wood, and emerges in pink underwear, gold shoes and super-clingy dog-tooth check leggings and flat cap, to become the Tight Tycoon.

Mike Shepherd narrates as the sage Calvino, with the newly cast Mary Woodvine appearing as Mama Cook, always giving it her all alongside Chloe Endean as Zephyr, who blows in the wind, and James Gow as one of the Rogues, who will be joined by Penzance's own acting maestro, Dave Mynne during the last week of the show.

Lucy Seaber and Ruth Shepherd have suited the cast in trackies and kilts, with fantastical fire design by Paka Johnson, lights Lucy Gaskell and sizzling sound by Pete Buffery, also with music by Justin Lee Radford and Dom Coyote, all acting and playing an eclectic mix of tuba, big drum and cello.

And the sticks? We had the world on a stick, a huge winged-stick centrepiece, angels, and a frieze depicting a long line of refugees, with just a few sticks for possessions - thoughtful fun.

The Guardian - review by Chris Wiegand (2022)

Irresistible theatre that sharpens the senses

Instant atmosphere … the backdrop for Calvino Nights is the Atlantic Ocean. Photograph: Lynn Batten

Based on Italo Calvino folk tales, Kneehigh founder Mike Shepherd’s bounteous show features burning instruments, puppetry and political outrage

Once upon a time? What a tedious way to begin a story say the cast of this irresistible new show by Kneehigh founder Mike Shepherd, his first since the mighty Cornish theatre company disbanded last summer. Before it even kicks off, Calvino Nights has pyrotechnics and flag waving, music and dancing, with actors prowling through the crowd trying to swindle us. They are latterday versions of Crack, Crook and Hook, the crafty trio whose deceptions are recounted in the Italo Calvino collection of Italian folk tales that inspired the evening. “We’re robbers, we’re rogues, we’re thieves,” they chant roisterously. To make it clear: “We nick stuff!”

In Shepherd’s show – co-directed with Elayce Ismail and co-written with Carl Grose, Anna Maria Murphy and Tim Dalling – it is as if the stories slowly bloom up among the cast, much like the set seems to have grown from the ground. Ladders are entwined with branches in a pyre designed by Luke Wood and decorated with weathered instruments and sculptures of animal heads. Inside it, a live band make merry. Any show staged at the open air, clifftop Minack has instant atmosphere – the backdrop is the Atlantic Ocean – but Calvino Nights fully utilises the setting. It’s theatre that sharpens the senses.

You might expect one of the sea stories collected by Calvino to be prominent in the patchwork of the script but other elements dominate. The show’s fire master, Paka, wields burning instruments, orchestrates bursts of flames as a musical accompaniment and at one point sets the stage alight, underscoring Caitlin Kaur’s darkly wistful singing.

Kaur plays The Wife Who Lived on Wind, whose habit of eating air appeals to a skinflint tycoon (Dalling in fine comic form). Calvino’s miser was a prince in Messina; here he becomes a preening gazillionaire with an Elon Musk-esque obsession with Mars. The story is combined with that of the mean soup-seller Mama Cook (the brilliant Bea Holland) who has a chickpea-sized son, leading to a rather protracted escapade about a rocket heist, but neatly making the point that miserliness and exploitation are not the preserve of the megarich.

The show, like the folk tales collected by Calvino, also springs from a very real awareness of poverty. Mama Cook’s refusal to provide succour to a band of travellers gains pertinence from the way they emerge as if migrants from the ocean. Among the cast is Girum Bekele, a talented Ethiopian puppeteer and circus performer who joined the Good Chance ensemble and appeared in The Jungle, about the Calais refugee camp.

This compassionate show wears its heart on its sleeve (and on Shepherd’s own chest: he sports a “make love not war” T-shirt). It also has a sharp sense of political outrage. The characters are on a search for their moral compasses – and they’re not alone, Shepherd observes.

The morals of these stories could afford to be more understated but the stagecraft is often arresting. String and rod puppetry enriches the characters of Pete, Mama Cook and Calvino himself (also portrayed by Shepherd) and a huge puppet emerges at the climax, with wings made from twisted roots, her reproachful stare softening with a slight turn of the head. Lucy Seaber and Ruth Shepherd’s costumes include mix ’n’ match tracksuit tops and black kilts, which let the performers’ scratches and tattoos become part of the show’s aesthetic. The band, led by musical director Alex Lupo, strike up with the force of a crashing wave, and everyone on stage – including puppeteer Sarah Wright – is juggling a number of roles, if not flaming skittles as well.

Presented by the Minack and imPossible Producing, it is a bounteous night that deserves a longer life. Calvino would surely have approved: his collection was inspired by the Tuscan proverb “The tale is not beautiful if nothing is added to it.” This is nothing if not beautiful.

 Calvino Nights is at the Minack theatre until 19 May. Then at the Lost Gardens of Heligan, from 27-29 May.

Review by Jenni Balow (2022)

Fiery bursts of pent-up creativity engulf the stage at the Minack in a scorching, wild and wonderful cacophony of colourful sound and vision that makes the heart sing along with a sense of uninhibited freedom to perform again for a live audience.

After two dismal years of virus-inhibiting theatrical vision, legendary Kneehigh founder and director Mike Shepherd and his talented team explode on to the stage with a show that widens our eyes to flaming flamboyance and fills our ears with an enticing rhythm.

Ten actors and musicians are chasing their moral compass, but it seems to have gone up in smoke, lost amid the gassy, gasping puffs of flame that encircled the stage for the first-ever performance of Calvino Nights on a tour that can be seen at the Minack until May 19, when it transfers to the Lost Gardens of Heligan for the rest of the month.

The show has been devised to excite the whole family, with an abstract storyline based on folk stories told by Italo Calvino and rooted by a tree of tangled twigs and branches, hung with flame-throwing musical instruments   -  a tree of life, a ladder tree, a tree of note?

The actors engage with the audience from the moment they arrive, serenading groups with an intriguing tuba and accordion duet, playing card tricks among pasty picnics, pointing and gesturing, and catching the wind in a raggle-taggle of costume and design by Lucy Seaber, Paka Johnson, and Ruth Shepherd, with music composed by Alex Lupo, Justin Lee Radford, Tim Dalling and Dom Coyote.

The action is devised and directed by Mike Shepherd, who also appears as Mr Calvino, and super-experienced director Elayce Ismail, for imPOSSIBLE Producing, in response to an invitation by Minack executive director Zoe Curnow, to create a show that was like those she remembered "as a kid watching Kneehigh" many years ago.

It came at the right time. Cornish audiences were saddened when the award-winning Kneehigh folded during the pandemic, after 40 years of presenting brilliant and inventive productions.

Calvino Nights retains the same magic, with its charming little Calvino and Pete the Pea puppetry in the hands of Sarah Wright, working with props and set creators Alice King, Lyndie Wright, Anthony Crosby, Laura Mackenzie, Eddie Butler, Mae Voogd and Luke Wood. Lighting and sound by Lucy Gaskell and Pete Buffery.

They set the world on fire with flying puppets and banners and launch a missile towards the moon  -  all in a day's work for this imaginative team.

Bea Holland appears as the cockney opportunist, Mama Cook, whose ruthless survival skills would match those of a Dragon's Den contender. She is in good company with Tight Tycoon, Tim Dalling, who is searching for "inter-gallactic tax havens".

Girum Bekele is Pea, conjuror and acrobat extraordinaire, who literally fires up his Rogue actors and musicians James Gow, Pete Buffery and Paka. Caitlin Kaur makes her Minack debut as the other-worldly wild girl, Zephyr.

It's all so stimulating and fun  -  spring is in the air.

Company Biographies for Calvino Nights

Mike Shepherd - actor, director, teacher and pioneer of the Asylum (a mobile structure and a welcoming space for all). Started Kneehigh in 1980 and remained ‘in the middle of things’ for 40 years.  Feels blessed to have performed and taught throughout this wonderful world of ours!

Elayce Ismail is a director and dramaturg, working in the UK and internationally across theatre, opera and film. She is the Artistic Associate at Cardiff-based opera company Music Theatre Wales and has previously been an Associate Director at Northern Stage in Newcastle and a Resident Director at the National Theatre in London. She trained in physical theatre and devising at LISPA and has directed productions for companies including the Young Vic, Donmar Warehouse, Shakespeare’s Globe, Soho Theatre, ENO and Royal Opera House.

Girum Bekele is from Ethiopia based in the UK (London), a circus artist who began his acting career performing in The Jungle at the Young Vic Theatre in London 2017. The Walk - Little Amal (Good Chance/National Theatre Studios), Slaa R&D workshop, Acrobat/Juggler (National Theatre Studios), The Crown Season 3, Fire breather/Dancer (Netflix, Stephen Daldry).

Peter Buffery is a theatre maker based in Devon. He primarily works in sound and music. However, a curious creative, he’s ever expanding his scope of practice and enrolled onto Guildhall School’s MA in Collaborative Theatre Production and Design, in 2018. Since graduating, he has released two solo albums and composed soundtracks for circus companies Gorilla Circus, Brainfools and Tête-bêche Trio as well as working for Kneehigh, Battersea Arts Centre, multi story theatre, Dan Bye, Beaford and Edifice Dance Theatre in various other capacities.

Tim Dalling has been a musical performer since leaving Glasgow School of Art in 1982. Early years of Kneehigh was his introduction to the joy of theatre. Love and fatherhood took him to Newcastle where he joined comedy folk trio The Old Rope String Band. He has also worked with Northern Stage and Sally Cookson and returned to Kneehigh in recent years. He has also created his own songs and shows the next of which in 2023 will be The Magic Hare Piece.

James Gow is a multi-instrumentalist, composer and educator with a BA in Music from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Since his first theatre show with Kneehigh, almost a decade ago, he has performed all over the world and worked with, among others, directors Sally Cookson and Max Webster. Outside of the theatre he can be seen playing with his unusual cello and trumpet duo JOW and the folk quartet Eleven Magpies.

Bea Holland is an actor, writer, director and  florist. She has worked in theatres all over the country, written comedy for channel 4 and is one eighth of The PappyShow; an award winning theatre and movement ensemble.

Paka Johnson, AKA Paka the ‘Uncredible’, was born in London. He is a European artist: an absurd clown, a sculptor of kinetic beings, a ‘pyromancer’, a partaker and creator of theatre. His voyage began in the early 80’s on the streets; he was a founding member of the infamous DNTT, his theatre company ‘Black Hole’ made shows for the LIMF. He walks on ropes and flies on trapeze. He somehow never got the day job. He is currently engrossed in making a kinetic/robotic Medusa to discuss the trauma we impose on our youth and the world we pass on to them.

Caitlin Kaur is an actor, writer and poet. She trained at Drama Centre London, National Youth Theatre and Manchester School of Theatre. She graduated in 2020 and has worked in TV, theatre and film since, including Sister Boniface Mysteries (BBC, Britbox), India Pale Ale (Bolton Octagon) and ARRIVAL (Royal Docks, London).

Alex Lupo is a musician with over 20 years of experience as a performer, composer and producer. Alex has collaborated with Ivor Award winning composer Charlotte Harding (Faber), Charles Hazlewood and the British Paraorchestra, Bibio (Warp Records), Dubkasm (Peng Sound), Malachai (Domino Records), and Babyhead (Rockers revolt) among others. Alex has toured as a performer with Kneehigh Theatre Company (Dead Dog in a Suitcase, The Tin Drum and Ubu Karaoke), and at the Globe Theatre in Emma Rice’s production of Twelfth Night. As a composer for film, TV and animation Alex has worked with Aardman Animation, Cartoon Network, Wonky Films, the BBC and Channel 4 among others.

Sarah Wright is a puppeteer and maker - she grew up at the Little Angel Theatre London and as a kid toured to many parts of the world performing with her family.  She has worked extensively in physical and puppetry-based theatre ever since including with Kneehigh, Improbable, Silo Theatre, DNTT fire performance and her own company Silent Tide. She also runs the Curious School of Puppetry!

imPOSSIBLE Producing
imPOSSIBLE Producing is a Cornwall based producing company producing Locally and Nationally, supporting and developing artists and new work. imPOSSIBLE is led by experienced producers Charlie Bunker (Wildworks, Arts Council, Kerpow) and Gabby Vautier (Young Vic, Barbican, Kneehigh, Manchester International Festival, Punchdrunk, Fertility Fest). In their first year they launched. The Island programme of brain breathing sessions and retreats for artists, activists and producers. Producing includes; Pagan Pandemonium (New Wolsey), large scale outdoor co-created promenade production ARRIVAL (Royal Docks), Help I think I’m a Nationalist/The Reason Why (Tour/Podcast) Didos Bar (Dash Arts), Calvino Nights (SW Tour), Terra Coda (MAYK), Escaping Houdini (BAC/ATC), Pied Piper (Beatbox Academy) 

imPOSSIBLE also support organisations including Theatre Royal Plymouth, NSDF, RTYDS, Battersea Arts Centre and Young Vic. Calvino Nights is one of 15 productions imPOSSIBLE are currently working to make possible.


Princess and Peppernose (filmed 2021 at Restormel Castle)

Mike Shepherd and fellow adventurers rehearsing Calvino Nights by firelight