'Russell's World' written and directed by Herbie Barnes, Artistic Director

Young People's Theatre

Young People's Theatre website

Joe Szekeres

‘Imagination helps us get through any problem or challenge. Einstein once said imagination is more important than intelligence’ – Herbie Barnes

In the talkback immediately following the on-demand presentation of ‘Russell’s World’, writer, director and Young People’s Theatre’s Artistic Director, Herbie Barnes’s above statement captured succinctly the inherent and magical essence of childhood that, for me, is always endearing to experience time and time again from an adult perspective. Imagination! Yes, childhood is full of times when we were victims of bullies and other times when we may have been the bullies, and that’s not a pleasant part of any person’s childhood he/she/they want(s) to remember at all. Some of us coped through all this using our imagination.

For me, what makes childhood so magical is its essence of that necessary creative spark. As a retired 33-year schoolteacher, I was witness to many, many moments of seeing creative imagination in action both in the classroom and outside. Over the years, I’ve seen many adults who have lost that sense of childlike wonder especially in experiencing when something new was introduced to us.

And that’s sad when some adults sometimes lose or forget what it’s like to see things from a child’s perspective.

Thank you, Herbie Barnes, for allowing us to see imagination at play in your script and production.

The story - Russell has moved to the city with his Mom from a home they didn’t want to leave. They had friends at the house and their life just felt right. Unfortunately for Russell, their new circumstances aren’t quite what they had hoped for as they feel they have no friends at the new school, and no one to whom they can turn as an older lad is bullying them. The only escape for Russell is to retreat into their room after school is done where their imagination (and belongings!) come to life. Can their friends Bear, Jacket and Book help Russell figure out how to deal with the problems outside their bedroom as well as those hidden inside?

I want to applaud and thank writer and director Herbie Barnes for allowing me to enter that safe space of wide-eyed wonderment in a jim-dandy and terrific on demand video presentation through Young People’s Theatre. I had my pen and paper ready to make notes; however, when I saw protagonist Russell (a charmingly unpretentious performance by Ziska Louis) enter their bedroom, bolt the chair under the door handle and call “Safe’, I put my pen and paper to the side and instead just revelled in being with Russell in their enchantingly exciting world of pretend and make believe for the next fifty some minutes.

Anna Treusch has magically created a delightfully colourful and fantastical bedroom for Russell with bright colours of orange, green, blue and red. Certain set pieces appear to be enlarged which helped me to believe that Ziska Louis convincingly plays a young boy. Various props are strewn about the room which is also indicative of a child/young person’s messy bedroom. Treusch’s selection of oversized clothing from his hooded pullover jacket to large trousers and blue striped t shirt once again reinforce that we have entered the world of a child, and I completely bought right into it. Very nice touches.

Kelisha Daley and Mike Petersen’s puppetry work in making Book, Jacket, Bear, Bedspread (and a few more objects which come to life that I don’t want to spoil here) was most certainly appealing to watch. Along with these various objects, there are also appearances of spectral looking beings, and I won’t state when they appear as that is all part of the fun of Russell’s world. Again, I bought into every inch of the recreation of a child’s world because it is such a danged good phantasmagorical world of make believe. As an adult, if I really liked it, I certainly do hope young children will also enjoy it.

Cathy Nosaty’s sound design and composition effectively enhances the childlike world in which the audience finds itself. I especially liked the sounds used when Russell becomes a pirate. So much fun. Shawn Henry's lighting design firmly accentuates the present mood of a particular moment. It heightens some of the tension as the inanimate objects come to life in the bedroom. The swashbuckling pirate moments are in silhouette which in turn on the wall shows how larger than life Russell feels as he is battling. Again, great fun.

Herbie Barnes winningly captures that youthful, wanton spirit both within his script and direction. I’m sure we’ve all experienced when we were younger those the true child like feelings of thinking you’re the only person who is feeling what you’re feeling, and that nobody else can understand at all what you’re going through. For example, at one point, Russell tears his jacket and then panics because he knows his mother will be cross with them. How many of us remember tearing our clothes when we were kids for whatever reason and then panicking thinking our mothers would be so annoyed with us because money is so tight or that it doesn’t grow on trees? So true to life.

Finely tuned cinematography and precise editing by Joshua Hinds maintained my focus on where the specific plot action was occurring. In turn, this allowed for unnoticeable camera optical effects to be in place and offer surprises for the viewer.

Ziska Louis is delightfully precocious as the free-spoken Russell. I have no idea of Louis’ age, but their performance work as a ten/eleven-year-old lad was dead on exact. Louis naturally assumed the idiosyncratic movements of a young person with arms periodically flailing around or the temper tantrum stand when things weren’t going the way they wanted them to transpire.

Final Comments: As in all good things from Young People’s Theatre, their productions also contain important life lessons for their audiences, and the same holds true here for ‘Russell’s World’. I don’t believe for one second that Barnes’ just wanted his story to be merely entertaining. From listening to his Q & A at the conclusion, it appeared to me Barnes also believes in treating his youthful audiences respectfully while letting them know of the harshness of the world.

In this case, for ‘Russell’s World’, young audiences will see that there will be times where children must learn to face challenges and obstacles head on to deal with them.

“Herbie Barnes’s ‘Russell’s World’ waxes genuine for children and youth in learning to cope bravely and deal honestly with those little things that may appear monumental as a child but, in reality, are not the end of the world. This retired schoolteacher gives a thumbs up for schools and families to watch it.”

Approximate running time: 55 minutes

Recommended for ages 5-10. Teacher Guides and other resources are available.

‘Russell’s World’ streams until June 30 on the Young People’s Theatre website. Visit www.youngpeoplestheatre.org.

RUSSELL’S WORLD written and directed by Herbie Barnes

Young People’s Theatre
Written & Directed by Herbie Barnes
Featuring Kelisha Daley, Ziska Louis & Mike Petersen

Set & Costume Design: Anna Treusch; Lighting Design: Shawn Henry; Composer & Sound Design: Cathy Nosaty; Cinematographer and Editor: Joshua Hind; Stage Manager: Kai-Yueh Chen; Apprentice Stage Manager: Sophi Murias.

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