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Ben and Nicola Harrison - Kids Stuff For Grid Iron Siblings

Once upon a time, Ben and Nicola Harrison idled their days by making up their own plays. Growing up between Norwich and London, the pair would present lengthy opuses to indulgent parents who were well-versed in theatre, and who counted actors Alastair Sim and George Cole as family friends. With three and a half years between them, young Ben and Nicola would spend hours devising and scripting their little epics. Best of all, though, was listing the credits, which would go on interminably as they incorporated assorted nick-names and variations on their real names to make their dual efforts appear made by a cast of thousands.

The elder of the two, Ben directed his first play while at primary school. Nicola knew she wanted to be an actress when, aged seven, she saw someone onstage wearing a beautiful frock. Both Harrisons ended up training at Central School Of Drama in London, Nicola on the acting course, Ben specialising in directing.

A couple of decades on, Ben Harrison is the artistic director of Grid Iron, the Edinburgh based site-specific theatre company who for the last ten years have blazed a trail of fantastical imaginings in hitherto unworkable spaces. The company’s most recent show, Roam, moved its audience through a still operating Edinburgh Airport.

Nicola Harrison has worn quite a few beautiful frocks in an acting career that has seen her work at London’ Almeida Theatre, Nottingham Playhouse and two shows with Red Shift, as well as being directed by Fiona Shaw on television, taking the title role of Medea. Now, with Once Upon A Dragon, Grid Iron’s first ever collaboration with The Bank Of Scotland Children’s International Theatre Festival, Ben has cast Nicola in a children’s play regarded in Holland as a modern classic. With performances taking place outdoors in a promenade through the grounds of Cammo Estate, on the outskirts of Edinburgh, the Harrison family are coming out to play in considerable force.

“We’ve worked together before,” Ben Harrison points out, “so we’re used to dealing with each other on a professional level. There’s no favouritism there at all, and if anything I tend to be more formal about things.”

While amateur psychologists might balk at Nicola’s multitude of roles in Once Upon A Dragon including Gretel from Hansel and Gretel in a play directed by her own real-life brother, her wide-eyed porcelain features were made for such parts. Any accusations of nepotism too can be pooh-poohed by her extensive credits in children’s theatre, including taking the title roles in productions of Snow White, Alice In Wonderland and The Happy Prince.

“There’s never been any jealousy or rivalry at all,” Nicola points out. “We both do different things most of the time, and last time we worked together it was quite funny, because we didn’t want to make a big announcement or anything to say that we were related, and half the cast didn’t actually realise we were.”

Ben Harrison first saw Once Upon A Dragon in Holland several years ago. In a country that puts children’s rights to the fore, and where theatre for young people is on an equal footing with more grown up fare, Pauline Mol’s script, originally produced by Moniek Merkx, comes from what’s now regarded as a golden age of children’s theatre. Mol’s trick was to throw into the melting pot a host of familiar images from well-known stories – witches, dragons, glass slippers and princesses in tower -, and stir liberally. Where in Holland the play was performed in conventional theatre spaces, Rina Vergano’s English language translation will be opened up by Cammo’s natural landscape. It was here Ben Harrison took his own two young children, Ella and Otto, to explore the space while developing the piece.

“I got them to pretend to be giants,” he says, “and they ended up wearing some of my clothes, which actually made them look smaller. But in their heads, they made them bigger. I remember asking them that if they could see a play anywhere they liked, where would it be, and the first thing they said was in the woods.”

Ella and Otto have become crucial contributors to Once Upon A Dragon in this way, and are already showing signs of following their dad and auntie into the family business. With such real-life guinea-pigs to observe, it’s the grown-ups in the Grid Iron family who are learning.

“The exciting thing for an actor about playing a child,” Nicola Harrison points out, “is how serious everything has to be. If you watch children playing, there’s a real truthfulness behind it.”

Ben illustrates this with a story of Ella coming home from school exhausted. “She said they’d spent the day building a city, and it was a genuine undertaking which they’d put a lot of time and effort into, and after a hard day’s work she just wanted to rest. Ella reminds me of Nicola when she’s playing,” he says.

Beyond Once Upon A Dragon, the Harrisons go their separate ways again, albeit into typically fantastical terrain. Ben will be directing Helter Skelter, a collaboration at Tramway with theatrical big band Music At The Brewhouse. Harrison will incorporate a script by Dilys Rose into a spectacle involving burlesque dancers and circus performers into an Angela Carter style dreamscape.

Nicola is currently awaiting the release of Control, Anton Corbijn’s biopic of doomed Joy Division singer Ian Curtis. Harrison plays the mental patient whose epileptic fit inspires Curtis to pen his masterpiece, She’s Lost Control. Though small, the part is crucial. Control opens the director’s fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival this week. This is one particular ball, alas, that Harrison won’t be attending.

“I’ll be busy running round the woods in Once Upon A Dragon,” she says. A happy ending of sorts, then, for a family affair of note.

Once Upon A Dragon, Cammo Estate, Edinburgh, May 22-28, 7pm, May 26-27, 2pm, Bank Of Scotland Children’s International Theatre Festival, Box Office, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

The Herald, May 15th 2007



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