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A CurtainUp LondonLondon Review
The Magic Toyshop
by Lizzie Loveridge
Oh I wish I was forty and it was all over and I knew what was going to happen to me!  
--- Melanie
 The Magic Toyshop
Hannah Watkins as Melanie
(Photo: Jonathan Dockar-Drysdale)
Shared Experience have made their reputation in original theatrical interpretations of classic novels. Angela Carter's The Magic Toyshop marks the first time that they have performed a work with which I was not familiar in its original form. However The Magic Toyshop seems ideally suited to their physicality, being a novel of sexual awakening, imagination, Biblical imagery and metaphor. With their lead actor, Hannah Watkins, who takes the part of both narrator and central character, Melanie, sustaining a back injury, much of the production has had to be rapidly re-staged so that her role was less physically strenuous.

Angela Carter's story is of three children Melanie (Hannah Watkins), Jonathan (Dominic Hecht) and Victoria (Harriette Ashcroft) who are largely left to their own devices under the supervision of the spinster Mrs (an honorary title) Rundle (Stephen Hogan). Melanie is starting to grow into womanhood and is increasingly curious about sex. The children's blissful existence is shattered when their parents die in a plane crash and they go to live with their mother's brother, the sinister Uncle Philip (Vincenzo Nicoli). This is paralleled with the Fall from Grace, ejection from the Garden of Eden, a descent into Hell. Philip lives in a house in South London where he terrorises the other occupants, his mute wife Margaret (Penny Layden) and her brothers, Francie (Stephen Hogan) and Finn (Damian O'Hare). Philip is a toymaker but no-one is ever allowed to play with the toys. He puts on puppet shows, manipulating real people. In a terrifying scene, Melanie takes the part of Leda and is raped by her own brother playing the swan. This incident spurs the others into rebellion against the tyrant and together they break free. Melanie finds a lover in the shape of Finn.

Rebecca Gatward directing for Shared Experience underlines every point that she can with a visual or physical interpretation so girls are deflowered with red feathers and Hannah's black bucket of misery is emptied over her head, disgorging black feathers. There were moments when I wished that the staged imagery might be more subtle but this intense physicality is after all Shared Experience's trademark. In a railway carriage the players stop at several points in a lit flash, like a photograph being taken along their journey, a memory of a point in time.

I liked the staging of the puppet show with huge shadowy people behind a curtain manipulating the human puppets on stage. Who could forget the enormous swan's head and neck flying towards the vulnerable Leda?

Towards the end of the play the whole cast slide across the stage taking the furniture with them and back again as if on a ship -- a most effective, storm-driven moment. The set has been designed to be part Garden of Eden with apples hanging from trees and part ship or ark with curved ribs of a ship forming a tree or an attic crow's nest curved hideaway for Melanie's ship building brother who is the only one in favour with the villainous toymaster Uncle Philip.

Much of the show hangs on Hannah Watkin's interpretative performance. She opens in her functional old fashioned aertex underwear examining her burgeoning body, amazingly frank and direct in divulging her ambition to experience love, romance and sex. Ms Watkins carries the play with her intelligent and utterly convincing performance. I suppose the back injury must have restricted her movement and she seems to stand still while the rest of the cast whirl round her.

I liked Penny Layden's dominated wife who chooses not to speak. Damian O'Hare as Finn is rejected initially by Melanie for his roughness but his qualities are allowed to come to the fore so he has to grow on us. Victoria, played by a fully grown woman, spends the play leaping and bouncing around in a frilly frock rather like one of the adults playing schoolchildren in Dennis Potter's Blue Remembered Hills. She never convinced me that she was anything other than an adult in regression. She seemed to merge into the dog but in terms of behaviour were it not for the whelps and barks, the excited, annoying Victoria and the dog were indiscernible. Vincenzo Nicoli's glowering looks, huge frame and broken nose give him an immediate evil presence.

In conclusion, with its present restricted staging, The Magic Toyshop is not the very best of Shared Experience but an accomplished addition to their repertoire. Touring from March is Shared Experience's new production of Helen Edmundson's play The Clearing about Ireland, Cromwell and the English set in 1652. The Clearing will play at London's Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn from 23rd April for a month. For a review of the New York production go here.

The Magic Toyshop
Written by Angela Carter
Dramatisation by Bryony Lavery
Directed by Rebecca Gatward

With: Harriette Ashcroft, Dominic Hecht, Stephen Hogan, Penny Layden, Vincenzo Nicoli, Damian O'Hare, Hannah Watkins
Design: Liz Cooke
Lighting Design: Adam Silverman
Movement: Susan Nash
Composer: Gary Yershorn
Running time: Two hours twenty minutes with one interval
Presented by Shared Experience in conjunction with Soho Theatre Company
Box Office: 020 7478 0100
Booking to 9th February 2002
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 25th January performance at The Soho Theatre, 21 Dean Street, London W1
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