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A CurtainUp LondonLondon Review
by Lizzie Loveridge

They say that your shoulder blades are where your wings were when you were an angel.
--- Mam
David Threlfall as Skellig
(Photo: Keith Pattison)
I sat yesterday at the schools' matinee at the Young Vic for this year's Christmas play, David Almond's adaptation of his novel Skellig directed by the late Artistic Director of the National Theatre, Sir Trevor Nunn. There were few adults in the audience and most of those were accompanying school parties. The children were transfixed. It is wonderful to see children's theatre being given such talented attention, an investment in the future. Nunn and David Threlfall are recreating their famous partnership when Threlfall mesmerised everyone with his portrayal of Smike in the theatre adaptation of Charles Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby. Of course the Young Vic's Christmas show is a must see and children were bussing in from the Home Counties for their Christmas treat.

Michael (Kevin Wathen) and his parents (Antony Byrne and Catherine Bradshaw) move to a new house with a derelict garage. Michael's parents are preoccupied with the birth of their baby who has to spend time in hospital in an incubator. Left to his own devices, Michael makes a new friend Mina (Akiya Henry) who is being educated at home by her mother. In the garage, under a tarpaulin, Michael discovers a mysterious creature called Skellig (David Threlfall). Is he a tramp? Is he an evolutionary throwback to flying dinosaurs or birds? Is he even an angel?

With the cast taking turns to speak the narrative and the full use of the Young Vic's "in the round" space, people pop up from all over the place and there are no moments which pale. The small cast skillfully recreate the school playground, the class clown and his imitators, the local bus and the characters on it, the hospital consultant and the team of medical students and even the fully choreographed Zimmer frame (walker for the frail) dancing team. The Zimmer supported oldies sing "Bones", all clad in dressing gowns and pyjamas with lots of tinkling glockenspiel on accompaniment. Music too features with a few songs and lots of creative sound effects, actors beating the rhythm of a heart beat as the baby is operated on for a heart defect.

I marvelled as Ashley Artus switched from footballing lad to (otherwise unrecognisable) grumpy old man on the bus. There are stellar performances here, drawn out I suspect by an expert director. Mina tells us about birds and William Blake, all things she has learnt instead of following a conventional education. Her performance alone I felt could have done with some modulation as her enthusiasm for bird life reached a shrill and annoyingly petulant note. Threlfall is of course the star as the enigmatic Skellig, with his gaunt haunted face, his otherness part of the mystery, his character full of cantankerous moments.

John Napier's design has decorated the Young Vic auditorium with posters of evolutionary men, birds and bones, hospital notices and school displays. There is plenty to look at that the children can relate to the play. A large tree dominates one corner and the garage is a masterpiece of stuffed rubbish and cast out furniture.

Some of Howard Harrison's lighting effects are drawn from Blake's etchings, the overlapping triangular rays of light are just beautiful as the flying is illuminated. We are reminded what a great director Nunn is, as every opportunity is explored to excite the imagination of the child in all of us. Towards the end of the first act the cast fly tawny owls round the auditorium on tall poles, believable and magical. True some old cynics may find the ending a tad sentimental but it is Christmas and this is a play for children. Just one complaint - they ran out of ice cream.

The Young Vic are currently raising money to rebuild their 1970 concrete breeze block theatre, a temporary building which was meant to last just five years. You could do a lot worse this Christmas than to support this theatre which does so much for its local community and for young people, fledgling actors and directors and audience members. To donate to the Young Vic contact Shane Tanner, Young Vic, 66 The Cut, London SE1 8LZ 020 7922 8439 or 020 7922 8401.

The Young Vic will leave these premises for the rebuilding in July 2004 for two years but will be "going walkabout" appearing at various venues in Lambeth and Southwark and all over London.
Written by David Almond
Directed by Trevor Nunn

Starring: David Threlfall
With: Ashley Artus, Cathryn Bradshaw, Antony Byrne, Sarah Cattle, Norma Dumezweni, Akiya Henry, William Osborne, Kevin Wathen, Mo Zainal
Designer: John Napier
Lighting Designer: Howard Harrison
Sound: Fergus O'Hare
Music: Shaun Davey
Movement: Kate Flatt
Running time: Two and a half hours with one interval
Box Office: 020 7928 6363
Booking to 31st January 2004.
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 9th December 2003 Performance at the Young Vic Theatre, The Cut, Waterloo, London SE1(British Rail/Tube: Waterloo/Southwark)
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