Skeletons in the cupboard

Who needs a budget of millions to re-create Ray Harryhausen's special effects on stage, when you can have two blokes and a pipe? James Rampton reports on a tribute to the master of stop-frame
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Thrill to dinosaurs walking the earth. Marvel at a platoon of sword-wielding skeletons. Wonder at a perambulating, 100ft bronze Titan and a six-armed sword-fighting statue. Tremble at a mighty earthquake. And gasp at a submarine plumbing the ocean depths. Come with us on a Fantastical Voyage - at the Purcell Room for one week only.

So what does it take to conjure up all these mind-blowing effects on stage? A Ben Hur-sized army of extras, surely, supported by a team of special-effects wizards on a Cameron Mackintosh-proportioned budget? Er, no, actually it takes two blokes and a pipe. In Fantastical Voyage, Gavin Robertson and Andy Taylor re-enact highlights from the films of Ray Harryhausen - Jason and the Argonauts (1963), One Million Years BC (1966), The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), and Clash of the Titans (1981) - employing nothing more than a bit of briar and a vivid imagination. (The pipe is crucial for portraying the Richard Hannay stiff-upper-lip types courageously battling the monsters.) Robertson has travelled this road before as the co-creator of the highly-successful stage-show, Thunderbirds F.A.B., which ran for four seasons in London's West End during the early 1990s.

Old school friends, who know each other so well they finish each other's sentences, Robertson and Taylor are relaxing between rehearsals in a north London cafe. Taylor explains the absence of props: "You use the economy of the theatre. One of our producers wanted moving water to indicate the ocean. But that would just bring home the fact that we've got no set. Once you start trying to re-create scenes exactly, you might as well watch a film."

By the same token, the duo wear just one all-purpose costume throughout the show. "It's far easier that way," Taylor continues. "You're playing a gladiator one minute and a dinosaur the next, so what do you do? Strip off and oil yourself down to play Spartacus and then strap on a tail? No, you just come out holding yourself in an `I'm well-oiled' sort of way... Then to re-create a dinosaur, you plod heavily, think to yourself, `I've got a big fat arse' and swing it accordingly. People think, `oh, there's a tail there.' They go along with the suspension of disbelief. We use the audience's imagination rather than years of studying with Jacques Le Coq."

This method does, of course, demand something of the audience; you can't just sit there, slack-jawed with popcorn in hand, waiting for a squadron of life-like, Spielberg-esque velociraptors to come scuttling towards you. "You have to establish the rules in the first 15 minutes and stick to them," Robertson contends. "It's about telling a story in a way that isn't reliant on giving you information verbally. Both our children love being read to. My two-year-old doesn't understand sentences, but he responds to stories. They're so different from videos because you have to use your imagination. People say to us after the show, `I was surprised by how hard I had to work.' They have to fill in the details and say to themselves, `it's a temple or a submarine'."

Drawing on the vernacular of the screen, this style travels well. "I've coined the phrase, `living theatrical film'," says Robertson. "It taps into that subconscious language we all know from TV and cinema. Editing is a way of telling a story. If you have a shot of a man, followed by a shot of a woman, followed by a shot of a wedding-bell ringing, you know they're going to get married."

The show leans heavily on the conventions of mime and has been viewed with disdain in certain quarters. "In Britain, we're obsessed with the text," Robertson says. "It's very hard to get movement-based work accepted." Because it utilises Harryhausen's work as source-material, Fantastical Voyage has also been dubbed unoriginal. "That annoys me," says Robertson. "When people questioned why Lindsay Kemp was doing Shakespeare, he said, `I like to work in the company of great people.' Critics say it's throwaway, but we're taking the art of sitting around the campfire to a different place."

In the show and in the interview, Robertson and Taylor's deep love for all things Harryhausen shines through. Like the Daleks or Captain Scarlet, his creatures - Talos, say, or the six-armed, swordfighting statue, Kali - are part of every thirtysomething's collective childhood. I, for one, remember cowering behind the sofa as Jason duelled with those infuriatingly unkillable skeletons.

Robertson and Taylor are adamant that their rigorously precise recreation of the distinctive, slightly jerky movement that characterises stop-motion animation does not take the mickey out of Harryhausen. "It's a fine line," Robertson concedes, "but people don't laugh because stop-frame animation is crap. They laugh because it's two men trying to re-create the movements. It's not a pisstake, it's an affectionate look at his work. The affection comes through in the feeling people have when they leave. We had the same response with Thunderbirds of something shared, remembered and appreciated. When we did Fantastical Voyage in Edinburgh, during the prologue the audience went `a-ha'. There was a collective sigh of recognition."

Quick as a flash, Taylor jumps in. "No one is going to come away saying, `Weren't Harryhausen's films awful?' Stop-frame animation is still an artform. Nick Park proves that." But what does the great man himself think of the project? "I was initially shocked because I thought I was going to be sent up," Harryhausen tells me. Having met Robertson and Taylor, he is now reassured of their bona fides; the show is, after all, an acknowledgement of the impact his models have had on a generation of cinema-goers.

Harryhausen was inspired to go into film-making when he saw his mentor Willis O'Brien's classic version of King Kong in 1933. "It was the wonderful way the film led you from the mundane world to the most outrageous fantasy ever put on screen," he recalls. "We all need to escape from our everyday duties."

He went on to develop the revolutionary technique of "dynamation" - "live action combined with animated models" - and to win an Oscar for his contribution. The process is highly labour-intensive; working at 24 frames a second, the celebrated fighting skeletons sequence from Jason and the Argonauts, for example, took five months to film. On screen, it lasted just five minutes.

Surrounded by a wondrous collection of models from his movies, Harryhausen sees a continuing use for the technique he pionereed. "I feel there's still an advantage in stop-motion because it gives the action a dream- like quality. Everyone knows that the Centaur doesn't exist, so what's the point of trying to pretend that it does? If you make fantasy too real, then it destroys itself."

Fantastical Voyage is a happy marriage. Harryhausen dwells in the same realm of the imagination as Robertson and Taylor. They are all mining our deep-felt desire to dream. "Everyone has a skeleton inside them," Harryhausen muses. "Some of my best friends are skeletons."

`Fantastical Voyage' is at the Purcell Room, South Bank, SE1 (0171-928 8800) as part of the London International Mime Festival from Wed 22 to Sun 26 Jan and at the Haymarket Theatre, Leicester (0116-253 9797) on Wed 13 and Thur 13 Feb as part of the Leicester Comedy Festival