Theatre review: Lionboy - Complicite's first venture into creating a show for children

Unicorn Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

For their first-ever exercise in creating a show for children, the renowned Theatre Complicite has chosen to present a piece based on the trilogy of best-selling books by Zizou Corder (aka Louisa Young and her daughter Isabel Adomakoh Young). The company has long excelled at dazzling theatrical makeovers of the kind of adult literature that is considered dauntingly unstageable – whether it be Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, or the work of Bruno Schulz and Daniil Kharms. 

The new show, aimed at young people from eight upwards, takes on similarly challenging material with this story of a boy, Charlie Ashanti, who can speak the language of cats, big and small. His scientist parents who have been abducted by the “Corporacy”, an evil multinational pharmaceutical company which, fearing for its profits, wants to seize and eliminate their new cure for asthma. Our hero goes on a quest for his family that takes him from London to Africa and sees him joining a floating circus and releasing a depressed pride of performing lions back into the wild in Morocco. 

It's not hard to work out why Steven Spielberg snapped up the movie rights nor why this theatrical version, attractively directed by Annabel Arden and adapted by Marcelo Dos Santos, opts for a stage language of heightened, mischievously resourceful simplicity. Adetomiwa Edun's wonderfully winning Charlie narrates and doubles, with just a crouch and flourish of his body, as the lions he frees. A clattery clump of aluminium stepladders can conjure up the shiny, soulless Corporacy HQ. Black rubber tubing in a bucket of water mutates into a slapstick shower of eels that is flung into the audience. The profile of the leading big cat is evoked by the bodies of three actors in beautiful shadow play enacted behind the versatile tilting disc that overhangs Jon Bausor's spare, circular set.

The short hectic second half feels a bit skimped, with the moral issues over-simplified in a slanted debate between Charlie and Victoria Gould's dastardly white-coated CEO that is staged as a colour-coded boxing match designed to whip the youngsters into a frenzy. And Charlie's eventual success at routing the Corporacy and liberating all the animals from its labs seems a little too conveniently dependent on the bizarre skills of Ninu, a multilingual chameleon (Lisa Kerr in lizardy lurex and headphone ears) who can even instinctively communicate with computer viruses. But the cast has great presence and spark, with Clive Mendus bringing a lovely dry cheekiness to Sergei, a GM moggy named after Rachmaninov, but a proud native of Wigan.

To 21 July; 020 7645 0560