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A CurtainUp London London Review

Thundering Typhoons! It's as parky as a penguin's armpit this morning!
---- Captain Haddock
Russell Tovey as Tintin
(Photo: Keith Pattison)
Gracing the stage at the Barbican for the Christmas season, is a new play based on the cartoonist Hergé's popular character Tintin and his small white dog, Snowy in the adventure Tintin in Tibet. It is the first time I have seen a stage adaptation of any of the books about the intrepid Belgian detective journalist in mackintosh, plus fours and a quiff that is Tintin (Russell Tovey).

The opening scenes are really exciting as they recreate a dream that Tintin has while nodding off in a chess game with the redoubtable Captain Haddock (Sam Cox). It is quite a challenge to take something as visually expressive as the Tintin books and recreate them for the stage. The word content of Hergé's books is minimal with much of the expression being through facial expression and body language in the cartoons. For instance, Tintin's friend the short tempered Captain Haddock blusters his way through the stories with his unique expletives like "Blistering Barnacles!" and "Thundering Typhoons!". His drawn body language and these expressions tell us at once that he is irascible but doughty and a great friend in a crisis.

Tintin in Tibet is quite unlike the other adventures in that it has considerably less action and adventure but is more about friendship, mysticism and extra sensory perception. Tintin has a frightening dream with a figure calling for help. The next day when he reads of an aircrash in Nepal with no survivors, he decides to go there to look for his friend, the Chinese orphan, Chang (Kenon Mann) he met in the story of The Blue Lotus. He is convinced against the odds that his friend has survived the crash. Instead of the usual array of villains, the enemy in Tintin in Tibet are the weather, the mountainous environment and the physical challenges of endurance. Even the legendary Yeti is not so much a scary figure as a benevolent one. Tintin gets help from the monks at a Buddhist temple. In real life, Hergé had a Chinese friend who helped him write The Blue Lotus accurately and with whom he lost touch, so Tintin in Tibet has many elements from Hergé's own life in it. The downside of choosing this story is that there is less action and a dramatic scene of the plane flying and crashing was cut because of time constraints and health and safety concerns.

The design is visually accurate and true to the books. Both my children adored Tintin and the images are very well known to me through their collection of books, cards, stationery accessories, T shirts and miniature models. The colours and the costume design are just perfect. Haddock in his uniform, Calculus in his green coat and outrageous hair and best of all Russell Tovey's Tintin, his hair dyed a chestnut brown and finished in the famous quiff, his ears prominent but not overly large. Although some of the famous Tintin characters do not feature in Tintin in Tibet, they all appear at the beginning of Norris' production. There is Madame Castafiore (Nicola Blackwell), the opera singer in the red frock, the Thom(p)son twins (Nigg Tigg and Jason Rowe), and Professor Calculus (Mark Lockyer).

I loved the white set like a box within a box, with different paths giving different walkway levels within the frame. In Kathmandu, the bicycles whizz around, each with the stock of a small shop piled high in each bicycle basket creating the activity of a bustling town. The scenes on the mountain are visually spectacular as the sherpas trudge up the mountainside with their huge packs of supplies. A later avalanche is lit red as the roar of the falling ice fills the stage. The crashed plane is shown with the passengers still strapped in, the huge machinery of the propeller stuck in the snow.

Russell Tovey is perfect as Tintin; he has a London accent and so avoids the effete received pronunciation of the 1950s. He is innocent and detached. His stance is an accurate depiction of the cartoon and time and again the drawings come to life. Snowy is intermittently played by real West Highland White Terriers (their legs are too short to be the real Milou) but mainly played by the comic actor Simon Trinder in a white suit at once quirky and appealing in his declaration of love for his master. Mark Lockyer trebles as Calculus, an Indian trader in need of orthodontic work and the serene Grand Abbot chief of the Buddhist monks, who when Tintin says he's looking for a friend, observes that he must be very lonely. Sam Cox shouts his way through the characterful Haddock part but in the Himalayas has wistful and homesick visions of the staff in his home at Marlinspike Hall.

There are some pretty songs in Tintin. David Greig's script is faithful to Hergé but then there was a representative of Hergé's estate present throughout rehearsals. The Tintin spin off merchandise is of such a fine quality because of these tight controls. I liked Rufus Norris' eye perfect production very much but I do wish next time he'll choose one of the Tintin books with more action chases and obvious villains.

For more about holiday shows, including links to those we've reviewed see our Holiday Show Feature

Written by Hergé
Adaptation by David Greig and Rufus Norris
Directed by Rufus Norris

Starring: Russell Tovey, Simon Trinder, Mark Lockyer
With: Nicola Blackwell, Michael Camp, Sam Cox, Graham Kent, Steven Lim, Kenon Mann, Jason Rowe, Nick Tigg, Duncan Wisbey, Tom Wu and the dogs Ellie, Ollie and Chester
Design: Ian MacNeil
Lighting: Rick Fisher
Sound: Paul Arditti
Music: Orlando Gough
Costumes: Joan Wadge
Choreography: Toby Sedgewick
Running time: Two hours with one interval
Box Office: 0845 120 7516
Booking to 22nd January 2006
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 14th December 2005 performance at the Barbican Theatre, Barbican Complex, London EC2 (Tube: Barbican)
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