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.