The Soho Theatre was packed to bursting on the second night of The Magic Toyshop, Bryony Lavery's stage adaptation for Shared Experience of the Angela Carter novel. An overfull house is great to witness, if less comfortable to undergo as a participant. It says a lot for the arresting power and eerily magical flow of Rebecca Gatward's impressive production that very soon I completely forgot that, seated at the end of the row, I was engaged in a tricky balancing act.
In any case, it was the leading actress, who was suffering the real bodily problems. An announcement at the start informed us that Hannah Watkins had sustained a back injury and that the production, which like all the work done by Shared Experience is intensely physical, had had to be re-blocked and to some extent re-conceived to accommodate her reduced mobility. The end-product of these last-minute changes is so persuasive that, if you'd missed the announcement, you might well believe that the central character's relative stillness in a whirling world of stylised, symbolic action and gesture was a free directorial decision.
Ms Watkins is excellent as Melanie, the 15-year-old from whose perspective the story is told. She brings out all the touching priggishness and underlying vulnerability of an adolescent on the brink of physical womanhood. Just as Melanie is becoming aware of her sexual nature, her parents die in an air crash that she believes she may have triggered by an act of trespass involving her mother's wedding dress. In the company of her younger siblings, this very middle-class girl is billeted on her overbearing south-London uncle, a toymaker (Vincenzo Nicoli).
It's a ménage that should be a child's paradise because of the puppets and the amateur theatricals but, in fact, it's like a waking anxiety dream of repression, with a whey-faced Aunt (Penny Layden), who hasn't spoken since she married, and her two lower-class Irish brothers who jest and seethe under the toymaker's stick-wielding tyranny.
With its free-standing arcs of metal that suggest the vestiges of a prow and a stern, Liz Cooke's fine, split-level design creates a space that is light shorthand for a metaphorical ship. This is apt, given that, in its depiction of Melanie's rite of passage into adulthood, there are strong biblical overtones of flood and fire before a second hard-won Eden is achieved. On this unrestricting arena, the company members embody, with a controlled expressiveness, everything from puppets to the family dog (which seems, wittily, to share the same body as Harriette Ashcroft's unnervingly infantile youngest child).
There are plays-within-plays, where the strings of identity get literally and emblematically entangled. You may wonder, later, how many south-London families put on home entertainments depicting Leda's rape by the swan, but, at the time, you are entranced, as you are throughout, by the show's magical way with textures physical and musical (a wedding dress disintegrating into crumpled tissue; a translucent curtain, with a wash-like stain of landscape rising from its hem, as though it has dreamily trailed through the area it depicts).
Damian O'Hare is wonderfully captivating as Finn, the red-haired younger brother-in-law: sexually insidious as first, he winds up heroically assisting Melanie in her liberation, so that, by the end, they are like a naked Adam and Eve, the post-holocaust world all before them. Strongly recommended.
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