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August 20, 2012 | by  | in Arts Theatre |
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Review – Skellig

By David Almond, directed by Tabitha Arthur

David Almond’s acclaimed novel was a competitor to Harry Potter when it first hit the shelves, and in many cases was the critics’ preferred choice in the arena of magical realism for children. It has since been made into a film as well as this, the author’s own stage adaptation. Touching on themes of death, innocence and imagination, and referencing classical mythology, William Blake, the Bible and Darwin, the story is much closer to Phillip Pullman’s myth-making conception of children’s literature than J.K. Rowling’s.

Michael has just moved into a new house with his parents. But no sooner has he begun exploring the precariously unstable garage than his mother goes into early labour. His baby sister is born with a dangerously weak heart, and thus (if you’ll excuse the crude metaphor) initiates the ticking time-bomb driving forward the plot. Michael wants to save his sister, and the only option seemingly available to him is to supplicate the strange creature he’s found in the garage. The creature calls himself Skellig, and he may or may not be an angel of death.

It’s a very pretty story, and makes me want to go read the book. But in adapting his novel for the stage it appears Almond has had some difficulty stepping completely into the shoes of a playwright. Everything (and I truly mean everything) in this play is narrated. The plot, the settings, the characters’ actions; all is narrated by the cast so there is barely a moment where someone isn’t telling you what’s going on. Perhaps the author was anxious not to let any of his themes slip by the audience (and there is a potent concoction of ideas at play here), but he has forgotten that theatre is a largely visual medium. It felt like I was watching not an adaptation of a novel, but a misguided attempt to stage a radio-play.

That said, Tabitha Arthur and her team of designers and cast have done an admirable job of wading through the text, and the most important elements of the story make it through with them. Alex Tarrant-Keepa as Michael and Tameka Sowman as friend Mina do a great job conveying the young imagination leaping at new ideas and ideologies. Both actors forge a sensitive and believable relationship, and they demonstrated a remarkable acuity to their surroundings during a somewhat rusty opening night: knocks, bumps, and dropped props were duly acknowledged and incorporated into the reality of the play. The rest of the cast have less to work with, playing multiple roles and contending with a script that doesn’t know relationships can be built with action, as well as dialogue. Michael’s parents, played by Kenneth Gaffney and Lucinda Hare, suffer particularly in this respect, compounded by a real struggle among the actors to play above their age. The decision to cast a female in the role of Skellig is interesting but in this case not entirely successful, primarily because Jaci Gwaliasi is forced to adopt a scratchy, cartoonish growl which gets in the way of truly emotive voice work and which sounds downright painful for the actor.

Crystalyne Willis’ design is a real stand-out feature of this production. The cardboard box set perfectly emblematises the world of potential a child’s imagination offers up on moving day, and it doubles nicely as the ethereal world of Skellig’s garage. The puppets, too, were a joyful addition. Constructing a pair of blackbirds from gloves and gardening tools demonstrates the kind of transformativeness that is inherent to both the childhood imagination and the theatre. I was disappointed there wasn’t more.

Despite its issues, the hearty story manages to wrestle away the disappointments. With such a short season, I hope the cast can find their footing a little more with this production and settle into something a little closer to a sense of ease. Granted, taking a pair of scissors to the script could be just as beneficial.

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