Friday, 14 December 2012

Theatre review: Feathers in the Snow

The early part of this year was defined in many ways (by us obsessive theatricals at least) by a surge of Philip Ridley plays, which we christened the unofficial Ridleyfest 2012. So it seems appropriate that he has a second new play premiering as the year ends, and that it should open in the main house of Southwark Playhouse where his plays regularly appear, as the final production in the current venue (Simon Kenny's set and Gary Bowman's lighting making an atmospheric farewell to the railway tunnels.) Ridley's violently poetic plays have a recurring fascination with fairytales, which perhaps goes some way to reconciling his very adult plays with his other career as a children's author. Both of these strings to his bow come together now for Feathers in the Snow, an ambitious (perhaps too ambitious) family show with a scope that spans generations and a story that covers the births and deaths of nations.

Trying to summarise the plot could lead to madness but spending the longest time at the centre of the story are Shylyla (Deeivya Meir) and TwoTwo (Craig Vye,) youngsters thrown together when a brutal and pointless war leaves them both with nothing. Together with a talking bird (Adam Venus) whose feathers cured Shylyla of a mysterious childhood illness, the two set out to find other refugees with whom to populate a deserted island, and create a new nation built on peace. Normally the story would now see the pair fall in love and learn how to be adults à la His Dark Materials, but Ridley's got a completely different plot turn in mind, as the differences between the pair eventually see them as king and queen of two warring nations. Far from building one island of peace, they each sire a royal line that presides over centuries of war and destruction.

Though full of magic and a lot of humour, Feathers in the Snow is a lot darker than most of the family Christmas entertainment out there, not least of all in its refusal to give us characters we can sympathise with. TwoTwo is very coldly pragmatic and Shylyla becomes a religious fanatic after the death of the magical Blazerbird. Then there's the subject matters Ridley deals with - I doubt there's many other family shows at the moment where one of the leads kills and eats another, let alone one that cheerfully touches on the torture of prisoners by soldiers or nuclear Armageddon. The years that pass in the telling of the story means a body count that makes J.K. Rowling look like Enid Blyton1 and the endless deaths end up becoming a running joke as one by one the characters keel over. Vye, Meir and Venus also cover a multitude of other roles along with Cerith Flinn, Nelly Harker and Matthew Hendrickson, plus the Southwark Playhouse Young Company has been enlisted to take on a few of the smaller roles as well as providing crowds to help give the play its epic scope.

David Mercatali's production goes for a strong storytelling theatre technique that I quite liked but Jan didn't really take to (he also had other issues with the play, most notably that he'd been hoping for a story of wonder but although there's magical elements to the story they're dealt with in a very matter-of-fact way.) In a surprising way I found some similarities in the playing style to the last time Mercatali directed a Ridley play, as the speed and forcefulness of the delivery has echoes of the very different Tender Napalm. At times I did wish for a wee bit more subtlety though as it can come across a bit shouty (and much as I find Cerith Flinn adorable it's not like he needs encouragement to overact.) I love the ambition Ridley shows in the scope and political undertone he's given a show aimed at families, although in the second act especially I thought it overreached itself a bit - I found there were a few too many real-world themes jostling for attention, although admittedly this is probably more of an issue to adults watching than to kids.

As for kids, there was a disappointing lack of them in tonight's audience (which was only about two thirds full overall - for all it's not perfect, the show deserves to be seen by more people.) For this family show only one family turned up, whose daughters at least did seem enraptured. Jan had a good point in that sticking to the venue's usual start time of 7:45, when pantos and other competing family shows offer more kid-friendly performance schedules, probably hasn't helped the show find its audience. But I hope it does get better attendance over Christmas because I like to see this kind of ambition (not to mention storytelling, which we don't seem to get much of) in family-friendly theatre, even if it doesn't entirely come off this time.

Incidentally, yes, this review is indeed illustrated with rather a lot of photos of the very cute Craig Vye in a vest (he gets a top with sleeves later in the play, but then Cerith Flinn gets a vest of his own so it all balances out.) And yes, that is pretty much how I would choose to illustrate a review anyway. But I should point out that the publicity photos do focus particularly on the "Craig Vye in a vest" theme. Which just means Southwark Playhouse know how to do publicity properly.

Also, if we're looking out for recurring Ridley memes: Obviously fairytales, as that's what the whole thing is; just as obviously, the sexual violence doesn't make an appearance. No parents lose their child although the possibility is alluded to a few times. Badly injured legs are very much present and correct. Disappointingly, neither chocolate nor insects are consumed.

Feathers in the Snow by Philip Ridley is booking until the 5th of January at Southwark Playhouse.

Running time: 2 hours including interval.

1without the casual racism

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