I was majorly excited to stumble across a leaflet for this production in a restaurant one afternoon. I know the story from the anime film, but that was originally adapted from a book by Diana Wynne-Jones, and the plot is mystical and bizarre – right up my street.
The performance was held at Southwark Playhouse, a little theatre hidden away on the corner of Bermondsey Street by London Bridge; so unassuming in fact that I walked past it twice before finding it. Tucked behind a pub, this place is actually an old disused Underground tunnel. Had I known this before going I may have reconsidered as it completely freaked me out – it was damp and cold in the actual theatre, but it provided such an intense and private atmosphere. We were stowed away, out of sight of anyone else; it was like the show was a one off, just for us.
|The tunnels of Southwark Playhouse|
The set was made entirely of plain white cardboard, just a big cut out castle with doors on either side and a window. It was so basic but so clever, as the story was brought to life with genius projections and sound. We were transported over snow capped mountains, into the sky and through villages with swooping lights and pictures put up on the plain background. It almost completely eliminated the need for props, as projections allowed Sophie to look into a mirror to see her younger self, and even to clean ‘dirt’ off the doors. It was all (pretty much) seamlessly synched.
|The cardboard set|
The use of the unusual space we were in was perfectly utilised by the character of Calcifier – the fire demon. He was projected in the fireplace, but was able to move by clever lighting making him ‘jump’ to different candle holders, and making his voice come out from different speakers around the venue making it seem as though he had really moved from right in front of you, to behind you, and back again.
There were only 3 actual present cast members, with the voices of Calcifer and the Castle (played by Stephen Fry) both pre-recorded, but their enthusiasm and take on what is ultimately a child’s story was refreshing. Kudos to the woman who played Young Sophie/the Witch for learning so many lines, but it was maybe a slight error in the casting to have somebody with a notably foreign accent play a younger version of someone who is then played by somebody really quite British as the older version. But it didn’t detract from the great storytelling, the bizarre and impish nature of Howl and, of course, the brilliant set design.
|Howl and Young Sophie|
I wish I could tell you to go and see it, but it finishes at some point this week. However, do check out Southwark Playhouse for more upcoming productions.
(Pics from Southwark Playhouse website, Exeunt Magazine and Theatre Fix)