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.

Interview: Haste Theatre, Oyster Boy

After award-winning performances all over the world, Haste Theatre’s Oyster Boy is back for a new UK tour. Kicking off last week at London’s Blue Elephant Theatre, the revamped show will travel to venues around the country between now and May, finishing up with four dates at the Brighton Fringe.

Oyster Boy is a dark comedy told in a light-hearted and quirky way, about the struggles of a boy living with an oyster shell for a head,” says Jesse Dupré, co-founder of Haste. “We use puppetry, clowning, dance and music to tell this strange story.”

Oyster Boy is based on a 1997 poetry book written and illustrated by Tim Burton: “Initially, we were drawn to the stories in his book The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy because they were so strange, and although short in length, seemed to say a lot and evoke much reflection and thought. We saw potential in the material and in the small number of characters he created, knowing we could inject comedy and humour into this rather sad tale.”

The show has been enjoyed on previous tours by audiences of all ages. “There is something in it for everyone!” says Jesse. “Because we are a physical theatre company, the story is told with a whole range of different performance styles, such as live music with ukulele and a cappella harmonies and choreographed movement and dance sequences. It is high energy and will leave you feeling revived, but also will provoke questions to do with the subject content.

“Primarily, we’d like audiences to have a good time watching the show, as it’s an action-packed performance full of colour, vibrancy and music. We want them to be engaged and to laugh, even though the story has dark undertones. 

“We’d also like to encourage a sense of questioning amongst the audience, especially in terms of morality and judgement of others. The character of Oyster Boy is subject to a lot of harsh criticism from society because of the way he looks, and this acts as a mirror to show the reality of some people’s lives today. We hope that audiences will sympathise and become attached to the puppet of Oyster Boy, and therefore be more inclined to empathise with people who are different without pre-judging them.”

Those who’ve seen the show before will notice some changes this time around. “We’ve performed our original version of Oyster Boy since 2013, and have toured it all over the world including America and Italy where it’s won numerous awards,” Jesse explains. “We know that it worked well how we first made it, but we wanted to challenge ourselves to tweak and change parts that we knew could be better and more developed. We also wanted it to represent our work now as a company rather than 3 years ago when we were just starting out. 

“Many things have changed this time around – in fact with the help of our Associate Director, Kasia Zaremba-Byrne, we’ve done a full overhaul of the story, the characters, the props and the set. Kasia helped us breathe new life into the show and expand on what we had before, bringing out new elements in us as actors as well as in the narrative itself.”

One stop on the tour is the Marlowe Studio in Canterbury, where Haste will be performing for one night only on March 30th. “The Marlowe Studio is a wonderful place to perform,” says Jesse. “We toured another show there in 2015 and had a great experience. The team who programme shows in the studio are very on the ball in terms of new theatre and emerging companies, and so it’s an exciting space to perform in.

“Local audiences should come along to check out smaller productions as well as large touring productions, in order to experience other types of shows. The studio is a great modern space with a decent sized stage and raked seating, and so audiences are guaranteed to have a good experience, especially if they come to watch Oyster Boy!

“Last time we performed in Kent, we had supportive and receptive audiences who made us feel encouraged and appreciated, and so we are really looking forward to bringing a different show to the same theatre. We felt we attracted a wide cross section of the community around the Marlowe and judging by the feedback we had, they thoroughly enjoyed our previous show. We are hoping that the same magic will work again this time!”

Catch Oyster Boy on tour – visit Haste Theatre’s website for dates and venues.

Review: Dick Whittington at the Marlowe Theatre

You wait all year for a pantomime, and then two come along at once. Following Monday’s hilarious outing to Theatre503 for Scrooge and the Seven Dwarves, my pantomime expectations were set sky-high. So did the Marlowe’s Dick Whittington, my second panto in two days, hit the mark? Oh yes it did…

Although a far more traditional pantomime than the night before, there’s so much to love in Paul Hendy’s production that it never once feels tired, despite the presence of all the usual tried and tested panto conventions. The gags – which include the usual local digs and up-to-the-minute topical references – are genuinely funny (even the ones you can see coming a mile off) and while there’s certainly no shortage of innuendo, it’s refreshing to note that Hendy’s avoided the temptation to go after the obvious Dick jokes. And there’s also a 21st century twist to keep us on our toes: a 3D section takes us into a dreamy underwater world that soon becomes more of a nightmare, sending the already impressive decibel level clean through the roof.

Photo credit: Paul Clapp
Photo credit: Paul Clapp

The big name in this year’s Canterbury panto is TV presenter and magician Stephen Mulhern, who charms us with his scene-stealing tricks and infectious giggle. But he’s far from the only star on the stage: West End performer John Barr is a very stagey King Rat (very confusing for a musical theatre fan; half the time I couldn’t decide whether to boo or applaud, and usually ended up doing both). Gymnast Vladimir Georgievsky brings the house down with a jaw-dropping and entirely unexpected (unless you watch Britain’s Got Talent) trampolining display in Act 2. And Marlowe regulars Ben Roddy and Lloyd Hollett, appearing together for the sixth year in a row, are a dream comedy duo as Dolly The Cook and Captain Crabstick; clearly having just as much fun as the audience, they really are a joy to watch.

There are moments when you could even forget you’re watching a pantomime altogether, so polished is the production. There are some spectacular group numbers – not least the Act 2 opener, Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat from Guys and Dolls, and later a slightly tenuous but still hugely enjoyable celebration of everything that makes Great Britain great. And in a nice moment Chris Wong, the obviously hugely respected musical director of 22 years, joins the show’s romantic leads, Ben Carruthers’ Dick and Jemma Carlisle’s Alice, on stage with an acoustic guitar for the inevitable cheesy love duet.

Photo credit: Paul Clapp
Photo credit: Paul Clapp

I haven’t been to the Canterbury panto for a long time, but if every year is as good as this one, I’ll definitely be back. Dick Whittington remains true to the pantomime spirit and format, so nobody who turned up particularly wanting to watch an assortment of odd characters sit on a bench and sing Ghostbusters goes home disappointed. But while it’s as predictable and cheesy as you might expect, the show never compromises on production quality, and proves a hugely enjoyable evening for audience members of all ages.

Dick Whittington is at the Marlowe Theatre until 8th January.

Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Marlowe Theatre

In case anyone’s missed it, this year is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. To mark the life and achievements of one of our greatest Britons, the RSC has embarked on a massive and daunting task: a new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, bringing together an ethnically diverse cast made up of professionals and amateurs to celebrate the universal scope of not only Shakespeare, but theatre in general.

It’s a risky project, fraught with challenges and potential pitfalls, but there’s no sign of nerves from the cast at the Marlowe, which includes members of local group the Canterbury Players and children from King Ethelbert School in Birchington. It seems unfair to label the newcomers ‘amateurs’, though; all take to the stage with such aplomb – in particular Lisa Nightingale, who almost steals the whole show as the RSC’s first ever female Bottom – that you’d think they’ve been performing with the company all their lives.

Photo credit: Topher McGrillis (c) RSC
Photo credit: Topher McGrillis (c) RSC
Director Erica Whyman has set the familiar tale in a crumbling, post-war Britain, a time of hardship but also of hope for a brighter future. As the nation prepares for a royal wedding, four lovers escape into the woods, and a band of amateur actors meet to rehearse a play. But little do they all know they’re entering a world of fairy magic and mischief, and that after this night, their lives will never be the same again. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s more accessible plays – there’s a reason we all studied it at school – and there’s plenty to enjoy for young and old audience members alike in this chaotic and colourful version.

In an excellent cast, Lucy Ellinson shines with her spiky-haired Puck. Clearly enjoying doing her master’s bidding and causing as much chaos as she can, she covers every inch of Tom Piper’s versatile set (and beyond) with seemingly limitless energy. There’s great physical comedy from the four lovers (Mercy Ojelade, Laura Riseborough, Chris Nayak and Jack Holden) as the men threaten violence and the women actually attempt it – and as Oberon and Titania, Chu Omambala and Ayesha Dharker bring a vibrant party atmosphere to their fairy realm.

Photo credit: Topher McGrillis (c) RSC
Photo credit: Topher McGrillis (c) RSC
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a timeless and irresistible story about love, and the things we’re willing to do for it. Whether it’s romantic love, parental love or simply a love for our art, it can lead us into madness – but it can also inspire us to greatness. It’s fair to say there’s more than a hint of madness about the RSC’s epic scheme to create a Play for the Nation… but there’s plenty of greatness too – not just for those of us who already love Shakespeare but, more importantly, for the next generation of theatre lovers. Here’s to another 400 years!

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is at the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury, until 23rd April.

Review: King Charles III at the Marlowe Theatre

Most of us Brits have only ever known one monarch during our lifetime. And it’s easy to assume it’ll stay that way forever, but of course we all know a time will come – probably not too far in the future – when things must change, and a new ruler will come to power. But then what?

King Charles III examines this question in unique and ingenious style, imagining the heir to the throne as he finally steps into the role that he was, quite literally, born to play. But when, within days of his mother’s death, he’s asked by the Prime Minister to put his signature to a controversial bill, Charles begins to realise what being a king actually means. As events spiral out of control, he struggles to balance scheming politicians with the expectations of the public and his own family, whilst remaining true to his own conscience and principles.

King Charles III

Mike Bartlett’s Olivier Award winning play is a fascinating glimpse into a possible not too distant future for our country. Though often light-hearted, poking gentle fun at the figures we all know so well (or think we do, at least), King Charles III is also a powerful political thriller that grips from the start – not least because its outcome could affect all our lives. As Charles discovers that holding power is quite different to waiting for it, black sheep Harry’s out meeting a new girlfriend, who might just make him see life a little differently – while golden boy William’s firmly under the thumb of a shrewd and ambitious Kate.

Robert Powell gives a commanding performance as the tortured, lonely Charles, a man desperate to cling on to what he sees as his God-given birthright, and with all the trappings of authority but none of the power to back it up. Richard Glaves gets some of the biggest laughs as Harry; his awe at the wonder that is Sainsburys is quite delightful, and Glaves’ performance captures all the frustration of a young man tied to an institution in which he has no significant part to play. After some initial misgivings, I also enjoyed Jennifer Bryden as Kate – particularly once she drops the saccharine sweetness and lets her inner Lady Macbeth out to play.

Most of the action takes place within the palace walls (with Harry the only royal to escape and venture into the world outside), and Tom Scutt’s majestic, towering set and Jocelyn Pook’s haunting choral music combine to provide a constant reminder of the weight of history and responsibility bearing down on the new monarch’s shoulders.

King Charles III is not at all what I expected… it’s better. This is a play that’s not just entertaining, but wonderfully inventive and incredibly relevant, raising important questions that could well affect our future in the years to come. For most of us, the monarchy is a decorative institution that exists mostly for our amusement. But it wasn’t always that way – and who’s to say it always will be? Obviously, chances are slim that the play’s an accurate depiction of how the future will play out – but it’s nonetheless a powerful reminder of the fact that, one way or another, the monarchy as most of us have always known it is on the verge of major change. So I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what happens next…

King Charles III is at the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury, until Saturday 31st October.