BREVIEW: Skellig @ The Old Joint Stock – until 30.12.17

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 

For more from The Old Joint Stock, visit 

For more on Tin Robot Theatre, visit

BREVIEW: The War of the Worlds @ Old Joint Stock Theatre 25-31.10.2017

Words by Lucy Mounfield

Tin Robot Theatre specialise in bold plays adapted from well-known texts, with previous productions at the Old Joint Stock – Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart – all being well received. But can their new take on H.G. Wells’ classic science fiction The War of the Worlds live up to this burgeoning reputation?

First published in 1897, The War of the Worlds has since entered the popular consciousness, spawning dozens of derivative works including radio plays, films and theatre productions. The iconic 1978 concept album, Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds, proved to be a phenomenal success – selling three million copies in the UK alone and spawning a long-running stage musical.

Tin Robot Theatre’s production hearkens back to an earlier time. Whilst researching for the play, director Adam Carver listened to the infamous 1938 radio play directed and narrated by Orson Welles, broadcast as a Halloween Special on CBS in America – infamous because many of those listening to the opening ‘warning’ thought they were being informed of a real alien invasion. It is this sense of realism, as opposed to the high camp of the 1978 concept album, that characterises the Tin Robot Theatre production.

As we enter the studio space, configured as a theatre-in-the-round, the scene is already set. A desk is in the centre; on the desk lies a contraption upon which the bespectacled Pearson (Touwa Craig-Dunn) is working. Upon the table are two silver arched desk lamps – the arms of which evoke the legs of the alien tripods, a chilling reminder of the aggressors that we never actually see. We take our seats and don our wireless headphones, tuning in to a crackling radio broadcast about a red sky over England. The inclusion of factual information alongside fictitious broadcasts like this provides verisimilitude; Tin Robot Theatre are interested in the ‘totality’ of the play, and touches like this serve to immerse the audience, creating the feeling that we really are listening in on the end of the world via radio.

Throughout the production the year or date of the atrocities is never mentioned – the props are neutral and this adds to the sense of universality surrounding the themes of conflict. Indeed, aliens are not referred to as the culprits of the devastation until Pearson hears from the first voice (Grace Hussey-Burd) and the artillery man (Joel Heritage). Up until this point I half expected them to say the heat-burns were the result of a terrorist attack. These theatrical tropes enable us to reflect on our own society and how invariably desensitised we have become to war; in this age of fake news and social media, the ‘truth’ is a suspect notion and something that Carver channels by bombarding our senses with sounds, voices and news slogans that are on a constant repeat.

Tin Robot Theatre’s The War of the Worlds is essentially a radio play, which is both its strength and its weakness. Of the cast we only ever see Pearson, as the rest are heard only through the headphones, and whilst Craig-Dunn’s performance was naturalistic the burden of conveying the emotional impact of the scenes narrated by the other characters falls on his shoulders. The remote cast clearly enunciates their lines, sometimes too much so, but the pace of Pearson’s performance is also sometimes bogged down by repetition of movements and dialog.

The script draws heavily from Wells’ writing. Often, descriptive passages were lifted wholesale and tweaked slightly so that they might work more plausibly as dialog. In places this works to great effect, but at times it also falls flat. In the 1897 text, Wells’ opening lines crackle with the menace of a hostile universe; here they are diluted and deadened, lacking their original impact – ending up as the worst of both worlds, not quite narration and not quite dialog.

These things are not entirely negative however. The disjoint between Craig-Dunn and the rest of the cast serves to produce a sense of unreality; you are never sure whether these voices are real, whether they are in his head, or whether the aliens even exist at all. The doorway on which Pearson pins his notes, and through which he exits at the end, is a constant reminder of the uncertainty of the outside world.

One of the highlights of the play is the curate’s (Jack Robertson) hysterical breakdown. Here, sound was used effectively to convey a sense of panic as we hear screaming voices, gun fire, machinery, and radio distortion, reaching an unbearable crescendo. To see Pearson wreathing and wrenching on the floor is just as unbearable and highlights the horror of what we are hearing. This is where the play comes alive – Craig-Dunn’s performance is compelling as he reacts with horror to the audio sound emitted from his radio.

Overall, Carver and company deliver an atmospheric and bold take on The War of the Worlds, immersing the audience in a claustrophobic apocalypse and evoking the best of 20th century Sci Fi. And despite a somewhat jarring end with the opening song from Jeff Wayne’s rock opera, which reduces a thought provoking finale to a postmodern self-reference, the tone of Tin Robot Theatre’s The War of the Worlds is serious, bleak and a far cry from the 1978 concept album.

Tin Robot Theatre‘s production of The War of the Worlds runs at the Old Joint Stock until Tuesday 31st October. For direct event info, including venue details and online ticket sales, click here.

For more on The War of the Worlds, visit

For more on Tin Robot Theatre, visit

For more from The Old Joint Stock, including full event listings and online ticket sales, visit