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: Where the Hell is Bernard? at The Space

I love a good bit of dystopia. Hard to say why, although I think what I find most fascinating is the psychology of it all. What is it that’s led humanity to this point? What keeps them there? And what happens if someone suddenly sees another way to go?

Where the Hell is Bernard? from Haste Theatre addresses two of these three questions. We never find out what happened, but somehow we find ourselves in The Vine, a walled city from which it’s forbidden to leave. Tannoy announcements explain that productivity is the ultimate goal; that citizens will be executed on their 80th birthday (but hey, at least they get to choose how they die); that young women should keep having regular sex in order to keep the population stable. It’s a terrifying, stark environment governed by unseen leaders, in which every action is monitored, and any protest brings the death penalty.


Inside a towering office block, four identical blonde women from the lost property department go about their daily work, reuniting items with their owners through a bizarre combination of physical sense and mental deduction. They know what needs to be done, and it never occurs to them not to do it; productivity is, after all, the ultimate goal. When the returned belongings of a man called Bernard bounce back, the women are given 24 hours to head out into the city and find him – but it soon becomes clear Bernard doesn’t want to be found…

The show combines physical theatre, puppetry, song and dance to bring to life the grim world of The Vine and the contrasting beauty that still exists outside its walls. We see each new location through the eyes of the four performers, whose initial confidence ebbs away to be replaced by discomfort, fear and wonder as they venture further and further from what they know. Elly Beaman Brinklow, Valeria Compagnoni, Jesse Dupré and Sophie Taylor work well as a unit, powerfully conveying their emotions through facial expressions and movement; in one particularly effective sequence we feel their panic as they search for Bernard with increasing desperation, while in another we sense their peaceful resolution. Lighting and sound effects from Katrin Padel and Paul Freeman also play a big part in establishing each setting, and especially in highlighting the different environments on either side of the wall.

Where the Hell is Bernard? offers us an extreme example of a society so influenced by its leaders that it’s lost all identity. It’s a glimpse into a disturbing future, but there are also echoes of an equally terrifying past (and a more than slightly worrying present). In this scenario, Bernard’s quiet rebellion and the women’s enlightenment offer a faint glimmer of hope that all is not completely lost.

The only problem is that said enlightenment and peaceful resolution seem to come a little too easily. The implication is that the women have been governed by The Vine for at least as long as they can remember, if not their whole lives, and it didn’t sit right with me that such deep-rooted obedience could be overturned so quickly. The show’s certainly enjoyable enough to be longer than its current 50 minutes, so it would be fascinating to explore more deeply the conflict between the characters’ new-found knowledge and everything they’ve ever been told.

All that said, Where the Hell is Bernard? is still a work in progress, and will I’m sure only get better over time. The show’s already both entertaining and thought-provoking in its content and performance, and it has the potential to develop even further into something really special.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Interview: Haste Theatre, Where The Hell is Bernard?

“Our aim is to devise innovative work that tells stories which provoke question, thought, laughter and enjoyment. We want to excite and stimulate our audiences, making them experience the world in a slightly different way,” explains Jesse Dupre, one of the five founders of Haste Theatre. Since meeting while doing a Masters in Physical Theatre together in 2012, the all-female group has been working continuously, making a total of three shows. Where the Hell is Bernard? will be their fourth.

Where the Hell is Bernard? is a futuristic dark comedy about daring to be individual when everything is forcing you to blend in,” summarises Jesse. We started talking about the book that inspired the show just before Christmas last year, thought about it over the holidays, then did a very initial couple of R&D days in January. In April we read books, watched films and studied historical events that we individually thought could work with the story to inspire new ideas. As we were still touring our other shows from May, we came back to the devising process again in August before the intensive rehearsals began in September and October.”


So where did the idea come from? “The idea of four women looking for a man named Bernard came up over a cup of tea with one of our brothers in a garden in Canterbury when we were on tour last June. It wasn’t a fully formed narrative at that time, but just before Christmas we found a book called The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasalina, about a photo journalist who runs away from his normal life to follow a hare through the wilderness of Finland for a year, after nearly killing it with his car. The idea of a man deserting life in a city and going completely off the grid really stuck with us, so we started thinking about city workers, interviewing some about their daily routines and what it means to disappear so suddenly and entirely. As we spoke about this, the idea of the four women searching for Bernard came back to us!

“We brought in a wide range of other influences including 1984, Logan’s Run, Black Mirror and the art movement ‘Vortism’. We also researched life in cults and life under totalitarian governments, to shape a new narrative that reflects a lot on modern society, retaining the essence of but not entirely mirroring The Year of the HareWe hope that audiences will be immersed in our highly intense world, while we tackle potentially dark and troubling subjects through a light-hearted and playful approach, and that they’ll be surprised and entertained by our creative use of set and other design elements.”

The show features a mix of puppetry, clown, music and song. “It’s got something for everyone,” says Jesse. “The fact that we’re an all-female group, with different talents and skills including various languages – Italian, French, Russian – musical abilities – clarinet, saxophone, ukulele, guitar – and dance and physical training – tap, ballet, contemporary, gymnastics – helps us to bring unique touches to all of our shows.

“Our specialities are in dark comedy and clown-like characters, which has shaped the material a great deal. We knew that we wanted some ‘set pieces’ which would be choreographed movement sections, a song, multi-use of set and props etc, which act as anchors that drive the story and characters forward. These are then linked together with slightly more realistic scenes.”

Haste Theatre have performed their shows – and won awards – all over the world. “I would say that one of the best places we’ve performed is San Diego,” says Jesse. “We were there in 2013 for their inaugural fringe festival, and were the only international artists that year. We were performing on a great outdoor stage, and the audiences were so enthusiastic and supportive. Touring internationally was an amazing opportunity for us as a young company, as it was a totally new experience and helped us to develop as artists.”

The world premiere of Where the Hell is Bernard? is supported by the Arts Council, which has proved invaluable: “It’s meant so much to us, to be able to practically make the show we want. Often we work with very small budgets that do spark creativity, as we have to come up with new ways of making things, but it can also bring about challenges for us. With the Arts Council funding, it has been amazing to be able to employ professional designers and choreographers to help us fully realise the world we imagined. They bring so much more to the show, and we are very appreciative.”

Where the Hell is Bernard? is at The Space from 25th-29th October.