Andy Manley rarely stops moving while playing all the parts in his performance at the New Victory Theater. Surrounded by children and parents onstage, he shifts and darts among them, transforming from kid to adult and back again as he relates the funny and poignant Ballad of Pondlife McGurk, named for one of its quirky, touching main characters. Brought from Scotland by Manley and cocreators Gill Robertson and Robert Alan Evans, the short play touches on the importance of being a faithful friend as well as on the hurt that can be caused by bullying peers.
The story revolves around Martin and Simon, two lonely youngsters who become friends when no one else wants anything to do with them. Martin is new at school, and Simon is a bit of an oddball. But when they discover that they both like comic books, Martin and Simon decide to make one themselves. After the two spend a fun summer together, Martin tries out for the soccer team and discovers that he has a real talent for the sport. Suddenly, his popularity skyrockets and he has no time for Simon, who is dubbed Pondlife McGurk after he falls into a pond. No longer an outcast, Martin spurns Simon's friendship, cruelly telling him that he doesn't want to hang around with him anymore. Years later, grown-up Martin wonders if the friend he abandoned as a boy will forgive him as a man.
Manley tells the story from Martin's point of view, but he transforms into the characters that Martin speaks about, giving each of them a unique voice and distinct mannerisms. He gets lots of giggles from his young audience (aged 7 through early teens) with his antics and frequent voice changes, including the teachers Mr. Truman, with his warbling cockney, and Mrs. Nangles, with her high-pitched squawk. Danny Krass' sound effects heighten the comedy and accentuate the play's more emotional moments. Martin also imbues his portrayal of the outcast Simon with a pathos that emphasizes how much words can hurt, especially when they come from people we care about. Kids will see at the end that Martin's selfish desire to be popular caused him to lose a good, loyal friend.
Youngsters will enjoy the informal atmosphere of Pondlife McGurk, which is staged like storytime. After entering the theater, the audience walks along a platform and onto the New Vic's stage. There, kids and parents sit on four large rugs that are arranged so that Manley can walk, run, and dance at close proximity to everyone. Though the audience doesn't directly participate in the action, kids will undoubtedly feel like they're a part of the show.
At 50 minutes, The Ballad of Pondlife McGurk is just long enough to hold the attention of younger audiences, and Manley's occasional direct eye contact with his listeners gets big, excited smiles. Children younger than 8 might not follow the story from beginning to end or understand the occasional Britishism; a few 5- and 6-year-olds looked a little lost, but Manley still manages to engage them with his lively shenanigans and verbal impersonations. The end lacks closure, but this can serve as a jumping-off point for discussion about Martin and Simon's friendship and about the importance of forgiveness. Grown-ups may also find something to like in the story — maybe a desire to reconnect with a long-lost childhood friend.