BCF 24: I... um I
Photo courtesy of Young at Art

Dutch theatre company Het Houten Huis open the 2024 Young At Art Belfast Children's Festival at The MAC with I... um I, a bizarre and beautiful work which encourages recollection, admiration and imagination through an exploration of an individual's life and livelihood, and many an element that may propel them both in fiction and in real life. As the poster indicates, it is about a man and a fish – a very fishy situation, you might say – but it is also about insecurities transitioned onto a rotating staging area for appealing viewing.

The rotating staging area in question is a large and marvellously constructed box which, through a combination of mechanics, puppetry, visuals and sonics, functions as a kitchen, office, bathroom and bedroom where its inhabitant and his fishy friend of all shapes and sizes - it makes sense in context, don't worry – find themselves in a mixed up, muddled up and shaken up voyage that amuses and astounds the audience of all ages. In its mood and pacing, it echoes what might equate to two-thirds of a live action Pixar film where a human sets out to find their Nemo but gets a similar emotional journey to Albert Brooks' Marlin in Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich's classic – that is to say, neuroticism tempered by an adventure central to peace of mind and growth of heart.

Given the way I... um I's set and proceedings move, which is very swiftly, empathy for the central character convincingly arises from his sense of being repeatedly turned around in a search for calm along with the fear of an external force either creeping up on or jumping right out at him. His ultimately positive story holds an underlying anxiety, the horror of being pushed into changes that are either unwanted or ill-prepared for. The fish, for example, may be a pet, but it is also a symbol – can you imagine what it would be like for a fish's owner to be in the tank while their fish has both grown giant and sprouted a pair of legs?

This is just one of many questions I... um I asks in its quest to examine the slippery cycle of life in all its shapes and sizes, and sets out to answer with consummate command and an immense level of engagement. At times manic, at times very funny, at times hugely thoughtful and at times strangely comforting, it works superbly as a detailed contrast piece of nonsensical fun versus routine mundanity and an example of how one reacts to being challenged or, quite literally, driven up the wall on one of life's many rollercoasters. It's simply delightful.

Simon Fallaha

I... um I's concludes its run at the Young at Art Belfast Children's Festival 2024 (#BCF24) on Sunday March 10. For more information, click here.