The cast of Iron Peggy.
The cast of Iron Peggy.

Like war, for some children at least, school can be hell. It is from this unlikely analogy comes the premiere of Métis playwright Marie Clements’ new work Iron Peggy at this year’s Vancouver International Children’s Festival.

Dealing largely with bullying, Iron Peggy follows the story of Peg, a young girl struggling at boarding school. With an absent father, an indifferent administration, and three fellow students who are making her life miserable, at her lowest point, a gift of three cast iron soldiers arrive from her grandmother. Magically springing to life, the trio gives Peg a lesson on survival, torn from the battlefields of World War I.

While at first glance the parallel between war and school may seem like an unusually wild choice, the lesson the three soldiers provide does translate to our modern world. With a mantra to “still your mind, steel your gut, and open your heart”, it becomes a reminder to be mindful, resilient, and empathetic.

Perhaps more surprising for a play targeting children as young as ten though, Clements isn’t afraid to go to some dark places in both themes, and in the use of language.

In addition to bullying, Clements deals in death, the realities of war, identity, and pushes the theatre-for-young-audiences envelope with racial slurs and foul language. Some of it may be uncomfortable, but it is ultimately refreshing to see a show targeted at young audiences truly reflective of the world they (we) live in today.

But while Iron Peggy’s central examination of bullying is effective, there is a rich history lesson which only skims at its surface.

In choosing to spend so much time in exploring Peg’s challenges in the first half of the show, Clements shortchanges us somewhat on the story of the three soldiers. Part of a Canadian Indigenous contingent who fought in World War I, their history and contributions are more fully explored in the show’s terrific study guide. It is required reading for anyone taking children to see Iron Peggy, or for those looking for a more robust understanding of this piece of our country’s past.

Under Sherry J. Yoon’s direction, Adele Noronha finds the necessary trajectory from bullied to vanquisher as the young Peg, but it is Raes Calvert, Deneh’Cho Thompson, and Taran Kootenhayoo who steal this show, playing the roles of both the soldiers and Peg’s nemeses. Injecting a necessary humour to help balance some of the darkness, the trio are absolutely terrific together. Rounding out the cast is Balinder Johal who makes a poignant cameo appearance as Peg’s grandmother by way of video projection.

In fact, video and projections play a big part in this multimedia show, which also includes some fun stage magic from set and prop designer Shizuka Kai, and effective lighting and sound from Jeff Harrison and Carey Dodge. Designed by Jay Dodge, the projections and video add an additional layer which effectively moves between fantasy and reality. The only disappointment was the decision to not more fully enhance the introduction of the three soldiers.

Funded as one of 200 projects through the Canada Council for the Arts’ New Chapter program, this Vancouver International Children’s Festival commission is a bold and often refreshing take on the ubiquitous bullying theme. And even while it could benefit from a greater emphasis on its Indigenous history, it is a refreshing change to see a show for children willing to take some risks.

Iron Peggy by Marie Clements. Directed by Sherry J. Yoon. A Vancouver International Children’s Festival and Boca del Lupo production in association with Red Diva Projects. On stage at the Waterfront Theatre (1412 Cartwright St, Vancouver) until May 31 as part of the 2019 Vancouver International Children’s Festival. Visit childrensfestival.ca for tickets and information.