Views From The Gods, 9th August 2013
Oyster Boy, Etcetera Theatre
Oh, we do like to be beside the seaside. It’s a fine British tradition, so what better place to start a story? With the ensemble of Haste Theatre (Sophie Taylor, Elena Costanzi, Jesse Dupré and Elly Beaman-Brinklow) dressed in blue-striped, vintage bathing suits, and music choices including jazz, swing and bluegrass, there’s a distinctly safe 1950s feel to the production. This air of nostalgia instantly puts us in a relaxed mood, after all, nothing bad happened in the good old days, and certainly never at the beach.
It’s an odd choice of opening for an Italian group presenting a story from an American writer/director mostly known for his gothic work. But despite appearances, Oyster Boy retains many of the hallmarks of legendary filmmaker Tim Burton – it’s no charming story for little ‘uns. Ripped from the his 1997 whimsical but dark poetry book The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories, Haste have made the play longer, flesh out the characters, and added a sparkling of lighter, more playful humour. Burton’s darker influence is still very much apparent, though. No one would accuse Burton of being all Disney hearts and flowers, and the ending here isn’t quite as shocking (or as metaphorical and reverse-Oedipal) as his original, but it’s still inescapably bleak.
One sunny day, an Italian ice cream seller called Jim (Valeria Compagnoni) spots a beautiful woman called Alice (Anna Plasberg-Hill), they fall in love, they dine out together on seafood, and nine months later, become parents to a boy called Sam. He has all fingers and toes, but a birth defect in the form of a head shaped like a giant oyster shell. You might expect an Ugly Duckling or Beauty and the Beast turnaround, but poor Sam is destined for a life of ridicule.
The words used are always kept simple – this is a production for kids aged eight-plus after all – presented with nods to Burton’s rhyme scheme. Even when Doctor Plumbcock (Beaman-Brinklow) is trying to bamboozle her assistant (Taylor), the jargon isn’t actually that complex. When Jim initially approaches Alice with whisperings of love, he is talking to her about ice cream, not reciting beautiful poetry. Predominantly in English, there are reference to their Italian background. But if you aren’t multilingual, much of the humour is brought out by the performers’ physicality anyway, you won’t lose much.
The set rather delightfully is contained in several suitcases, so when out come the swathes of material, it feels like a book has been opened and a fantastical world sprung out from the pages. Certainly one brighter and more hopeful than the original – no bad thing, it’s a fine reworking and much of the all-female troupe’s style relies on this effervescence. There’s a touch of magic here.
Sam – or Oyster Boy – is a puppet based on Burton’s own illustrations, a giant closed shell for a head, and a more human-shaped torso, made out of rags. In some ways, a literal sad sack. The performers manipulate the puppet so he walks with his parents, he swims in the sea, tries to befriend other children – Sam is imbued with a persona so clearly that we feel a genuine pang of sadness for he is treated. It’s a much more rough and ready representation of Burton’s vision, as opposed to the most famous – and much more polished – puppets in Henry Selick’s A Nightmare Before Christmas or The Corpse bride. But it works so well precisely because of that.
There’s an undeniable darkness throughout, but the laughs are kept rolling, this an enjoyable black comedy and piece of physical theatre. Plasberg-Hill is wonderfully cast as the sweet, innocent Alice – when we catch a glimpse of her other side, it’s a delicious contrast. And Compagnoni makes a formidable husband, a sympathetic character beaten down by the rest of the world’s cruelty.
It may not be quite as imbued with pathos or delicious irony as Burton’s original, but it’s good to see a company ploughing their own furrow with a wonderfully put together piece. It will undoubtedly enchant the younger audience members while keeping adults equally entertained.