Words by Lucy Mounfield
It’s nearly Christmas, but the recent snow has thawed. I am not particularly feeling the magic and spirit of the holiday season as I make a trip to The Old Joint Stock, to watch resident theatre company Tin Robot’s production of Skellig.
When I reviewed Tin Robot’s last play, The War of the Worlds, I was struck by the inspiring balance between the company’s experimental use of technology and immersive characterisation. These theatrical tropes communicated the dystopian landscape of H.G. Wells’ science fiction well. However, when I heard that Tin Robot were adapting David Almond’s family classic for the Christmas period, I admit I was a little sceptical as to how their distinctive style would convey the warmth and hope of Almond’s story.
From the first moment in the small studio upstairs at The Old Joint Stock, my fears are alleviated. We are greeted by a grotto-like space, with every inch of the ceiling covered in fairy lights. On the back wall are pinned some more lights in the shape of wings. The set is beautiful and evocatively brings to life the magical and mysterious atmosphere of the book.
Underneath the canopy of twinkly lights the cast, which consists of four actors and one musician, play guitars and accordions and dance folk jigs. The group singing feels relaxed and ad hoc, creating the sense that the story is naturally unfolding before us. The jovial atmosphere completely puts me at ease and I immediately know that, whatever happens in the meantime, there will be a happy ending.
The rustic aspect of the play symbolises the sublime nature of landscape. The earthly and otherworldly are balanced through the ambiguous creature, Skellig. Interestingly, Almond named the play and its principal characters after the beautiful Irish island, Skellig Michael. Throughout, the characters of Michael and Nima discuss evolution and the mysteries of nature. As the human story at the centre of the play unfolds, the natural world is constantly alluded to in this way. But this is done subtly; the story is not a heavy-handed allegory – it invites contemplation, but doesn’t force the issue. Such is true of Skellig himself; his true nature is still indeterminate by the end of the story, somewhere between man, bird and angel.
The play follows a young boy called Michael (Danny Hetherington) who with his family moves into a new house where upon he stumbles into an old, ramshackle garage. Coinciding with this, his newly born sister falls ill and her fate is uncertain. The story is brought to life by the cast, who effortlessly flit between roles and re-arrange the set as they go, moving pallet boards, boxes and chairs to set each scene, from a family’s new home, to a school bus, to a derelict garage.
While the lighting and props are minimal they are used to great effect by the cast. Teddy Corbett is transformed from the amicable Dad into the decrepit, arthritic Skellig through simple lighting and a change of voice and physicality. It is completely convincing. Indeed, the set and lighting are very clever. When Skellig is living in the garage, benches are positioned vertically on either side of him with the legs pointing outwards, representing the detritus of the garage. As Michael finds Skellig he uses the light from a small torch to illuminate him. Often Skellig has his hunched back to us and, with the light from the torch, this creates a shadow of his body. The images created by the various shadows give a depth and nuance to the characterisation. With each small movement of the torch the shadow of Skellig’s rugged form gets bigger and envelopes the back wall, forming the shape of a body for the fairy light wings to attach to. This is a fantastic piece of direction, which alludes to Skellig’s mysterious nature and adds layers of wonderment.
As Skellig is transferred to an abandoned house by Michael and his friend Nima (Grace Hussey-Burd) his body becomes more visible. At this point, Skellig, Nima and Michael dance together under one lightbulb until Skellig extends his arthritic body back to the lights on the wall, which suddenly turn on, casting the shape of wings which protrude from his shoulder blades. This is a magical moment that really causes the audience to gasp and smile.
While all members of the cast except for Hetherington perform multiple roles, one is never confused as to who they are – this is aided by the scene transitions and a repertoire of regional accents. Just as Skellig’s wings soar, so too does my imagination. The clever use of lights and shadow enable each audience member to interpret the body and shape of Skellig, immersing us thoroughly into this dramatic world. Heatherington too is superb, as the naïve but inquisitive young Michael; his simple yet extreme mannerisms match the raw and untapped emotion of someone still developing.
The intimate venue and live music immerse us in the play, while clever direction and excellent performances establish the human drama and evoke the themes of the novel. Here the use of the source text in the script feels completely appropriate. I thoroughly enjoyed Tin Robot’s take on The War of the Worlds, but thought it didn’t quite hit the mark in some respects. In contrast, with Skellig the company is firing on all cylinders. Christmas is back on.
Skellig runs the The Old Joint Stock Theatre until 30th December. For direct details, including show times and online ticket sales, visit www.oldjointstock.co.uk/whats-on/skellig
For more from The Old Joint Stock, visit www.oldjointstock.co.uk
For more on Tin Robot Theatre, visit www.facebook.com/TinRobotTheatre