Review: Oyster Boy at the Marlowe Studio

Haste Theatre’s award-winning Oyster Boy was inspired by Tim Burton’s short poem, The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy. The original title leaves little to the imagination in terms of the story’s gloomy conclusion, though Haste have given their unfortunate hero a slightly less horrific end, and the show has an altogether more light-hearted tone than Burton’s typically dark tale.

Set in 1950s Coney Island, this is the story of ice cream seller Jim (Valeria Compagnoni) who falls in love with Alice (Lexie McDougall) when he saves her from a shark. After overindulging in a French restaurant on their wedding night, nine months later the couple are taken aback when their son Sam is born with a large oyster shell-shaped head. Despite the support of his friends Molly and Polly, all the adults in the local community are horrified by the otherwise utterly inoffensive Sam, and when his parents’ attempts to find a medical solution end in failure, they’re faced with a tragic decision about his future.

The show is a perfect showcase for Haste’s creativity and versatility (not to mention multilingualism), blending music, dance, puppetry and physical theatre to bring Sam’s story to life. An empty stage is transformed into the seaside setting through knowingly simple touches: a large piece of blue cloth becomes the sea, complete with cardboard dolphins and sharks, while the cast don stick-on fake moustaches and adopt over-the-top accents, conjuring up tables and counters with nothing more than a tablecloth held by the corners. The overall effect is bright, colourful and with a charming, slightly homemade feel that proves sometimes a lot can be said with very little.

This theme continues with Sam himself, who appears only in puppet form… but don’t be fooled into thinking that means he’s not real. Skilfully manipulated by the cast, Sam very much comes to life before our eyes – even indulging in a spot of kite-surfing at one point – and demonstrates all the emotions and qualities of any other little boy. He laughs, cries, feels fear and shows courage, and this really helps to drive home the show’s message about looking past physical appearance to get to know the person underneath.

Musical interludes fill in the details of the story as time passes, with a barbershop quartet chorus (Jesse Dupré, Elly-Beaman Brinklow, Tamara Saffir and Sophie Taylor, who also each take on a multitude of roles) determinedly trying to keep things upbeat even when the story’s taking one of its darker turns. Music is also used, rather differently but no less effectively, as the show comes to its melancholy yet strangely beautiful conclusion.

The cast are clearly thoroughly enjoying themselves, hamming it up as their various larger than life characters and throwing themselves enthusiastically into the dance numbers. Occasionally it all gets a little bit manic – I must admit I slightly lost track of what was going on during the doctor scene, perhaps due to a bit of unscripted banter with an audience member – but on the whole the company’s obvious joy in what they’re doing is infectious and gives us just as many laughs as the jokes within the script.

Oyster Boy is a story about acceptance and friendship, which gets its message across even without the neat, happy ending we might expect from a family show (though it’s still not as gory as the opening lines suggest). It’s all very surreal but a lot of fun, and a great hour’s entertainment for audiences of all ages.

Oyster Boy is at Edinburgh’s Assembly George Square from 2nd-28th August.

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