It may seem to be just a pleasant cycle ride away from the centre of Norwich, but today Whitlingham Country Park was my starting point for an incredible journey of adventure and exploration.
Strange Fascination Theatre are a recently formed group who specialise in bringing exciting traditional favourites to life with a lively theatrical style in open air shows.

Journey to the Centre of the Earth is a new production and is based on the Jules Verne novel of the same name written in 1864 at a time when exploration was all in vogue.  Director Simon Michael-Morgan leads a five strong cast through a re-interpretation of the adventure which features many of the trials and tribulations of the original yarn with a few modern alterations which are very welcome.

Helen Fullerton is very impressive as Professor Lindenbrook, who first discovers the gateway to a world below us from an ancient runic manuscript from Iceland.  Her sidekick is the hapless student Alex (Adam Boyle) and along the way they add the fearsome Grauben (Jessamy James) and Icelander Hans (Joshua Gold) to their team of explorers.  But they are being followed by the evil Doctor Graken (Simon Michael-Morgan) who sees new exploration as a key to his future exploitation of minerals and gems to make himself large profits.

The production follows the quest in a lively style with a lot of physical theatre and interaction with children young and old within the audience.  Whitlingham is a perfect setting for this fast paced and entertaining show, where if you forget to bring a picnic the splendid cafe there can top you up with food and drink.

The underground world that we are led through contains numerous perils and challenges and we get to meet the cutest bug you have ever seen who joins the group of intrepid travellers.  This is a world where creatures long extinct still roam free, so watch out for the dinosaurs who look rather hungry and have fearsome teeth!  There are songs along the way to keep our spirits up and a surprisingly good soundtrack emerges from the gazebo behind the theatrical backdrop to add to the atmosphere.  This show turns some of older film and theatre conventions upside down, and with Prof Lindenbrook and Grauben we have two strong female characters leading the action and fearless in tackling whatever comes their way.  Student Alex is not quite so brave, and keeps getting lost and into scrapes but loyally follows his Professor to the very bowels of the Earth. Doctor Graken gives us a classic Victorian villain.

This show is packed with many of the original details of the Jules Verne novel, but is short enough for the children in the audience to stay attentive and enthralled (and help out as mushrooms).  The show has a message about how we treat our planet as we discover more about it, but it is not a preachy or moralising message – just good sense.

Outdoor theatre can be an haphazard affair, but this show is well conceived and the energetic and capable cast make the best of their surroundings frequently weaving in and around the audience scattered around in camping chairs and on picnic rugs.

This show gives us a delightful way to pass a couple of hours in the open air.  I would recommend taking something comfy to sit on, and a little picnic and some fizzy drink can only make it more pleasant as you share one of the liveliest of Victorian adventure stories.  A fun show that every member of the family will enjoy.

© Julian Swainson 2018

Further information and Listing:

Tickets from www.ticket   –  Tickets are £12 and £8 for kids.

Strange Fascination Theatre present their 2018 open air theatre tour, ‘JOURNEY TO THE CENTRE OF THE EARTH’ ~ adapted from the novel by Jules Verne. Touring East Anglia from June – August 2018. It’s an exciting children’s orientated adventure with puppets, daring escapes, ingenious physical theatre and much more.   The show is based on a literary classic and will appeal to families looking for more content, substance and intelligence to their summer show outing this year.  The aim is to inspire children to question the world around them, read more books and engage with nature, all whilst having fun watching the show. The story deals with Professor Lindenbrook who has discovered a secret and gathers a band of misfits to embark on a great expedition. There are others however, who will stop at nothing to claim the secrets for themselves… Full of puppetry, physical theatre, music, colourful characters, comedy and exciting adventure, the show promises to be a non stop adventure from start to finish.
Tour dates and venues:
*Whitlingham Park, Norwich ~ June 23rd 14:30 & 18:00
*Woodfordes Brewery ~ June 24th & July 27th 14:30 & 18:00 
*Hoveton Hall ~ June 30th & July 1st 14:30 & 18:00
*Gressenhall Museum ~ July 8th 12:00 & 14:30 
*Mannington Hall ~ July 14th 14:30 & 18:00
*The Grove, Cromer ~ July 21st 14:30 & 18:00
*Catton Park, Norwich ~ July 28th & 29th 14:30 & 18:00
*Bungay Castle ~ 11th & 12th August 12:00 & 15:30
*Holkham Hall ~ 15th August 18:00
*Country Girl Weddings & Events, Wymondham ~ August 18th. 14:30 & 18:00
Hautbois Hall ~ August 22nd. 17:00

The adventurers set out – photo supplied

About Strange Fascination Theatre~
 Strange Fascination theatre is Simon Michael – Morgan and Daisy Plackett, two professional theatre practitioners. Simon has been an actor for over twenty years, appearing onstage with a wide variety of companies, as well as television and film. Daisy is a professional theatre designer whose work has appeared on film and in various exhibitions. They formed the company in 2014 to creative exciting and accessible theatre in a wide variety of genres, whilst paying a wage to creatives, thus building an industry in this area., They started in Great Yarmouth performing immersive walk around murder mysteries at ‘Yesterday’s World’, a Victorian history museum. Such was the success of this summer of shows that they were nominated for a ‘Spirit of Enterprise’ award in 2014. They moved onto open air theatre in 2015, with a five actor adaption of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ which was then produced again in 2016. Last year saw them tour their adaption of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ to critical acclaim. They sold out at Holkham Hall and were endorsed by Stephen Fry on twitter.  To date, they have been nominated for the Norfolk Arts Awards twice, in 2014 and 2015.
 They also create immersive walkaround theatre shows in a wide range of genres, most recently an immersive horror, ‘The Feeding’ in Hunstanton for Halloween. This Halloween, the Feeding returns, albeit it with a different story, to Bungay Castle. They have further been commissioned by Kings Lynn Council to create interactive childrens theatre in Hunstanton throughout August.
The Cast and Show ~
 They are delighted to be working with two actors who toured with them last year, Helen Fullerton and Jessamy James, as well as local professional Joshua Gould and London based actor, Adam Boyle. All are very active in the region and beyond. Helen Fullerton has just returned from a tour of China and can also been seen in a forthcoming feature film version of ‘Wuthering Heights’. Jessamy James is an award winning short story writer and has also finished a theatre show version of ‘MacBeth’. Joshua Gould is a model and can be seen this summer at the Edinburgh Fringe performing a show, whilst Adam has recently completed a childrens theatre tour. Simon has recently completed an advert for Talk Talk and will be filming a western feature film in the USA next year. Daisy is currently working on feature ‘Heckle’ as art director.
 This year’s show is a rip roaring adventure that will be told through the use of physical theatre and mime, utilising set elements and puppetry to tell the story. They will take the audience on the journey with them, using sound and movement as well as employing cloths of dazzling colours, dance skills of the actors and interesting live action puppets of dinosaurs. They actively cast gender blind too, believing in the ‘right person for the job’. They actively encourage the audience to bring picnics to their shows and to dress up accordingly, so as to get into the spirit of the production! As they are visiting some of the country’s most beautiful venues, they always incorporate as much interaction before and after their shows as possible, to enhance the audience’s experience to to the fullest.