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Theatre Review: David Almond's Skellig at Nottingham Playhouse

28 March 19 words: Edward Jones

Skellig by David Almond is Artistic Director Adam Penford’s sophomore family show of his tenure at Nottingham Playhouse. Lisa Blair takes the directorial reins of this darkly supernatural tale, guiding the audience along a journey which boldly discusses mortality through the lens of magic realism, provoking discussions and placing lumps in throats.

Nottingham Playhouse’s mainstage is transformed into a hermetic nest by Designer Frankie Bradshaw, with metal walkers and bicycle wheels interwoven into the awesome structure which consumes the stage. Darkness hides in small coves around the borders, only to be broken by Alexandra Stafford’s rays of light which enduringly shine through its chinks. Combined, this is the perfect setting for characters on the brink of life and death; for our protagonist Michael’s new-born sister, born premature with a heart condition, a fledgling struggling to take flight into her new life, and for Skellig who has seemingly forgotten how to fly altogether.

Shortly after hearing the news of his baby sister’s condition, Sam Swann’s Michael discovers the decrepit Skellig in the garage of his new home. Pallid skin and arthritically clawed hands tellingly portray Edward Harrison’s Skellig as somewhere been alive and dead, barely able to move he gutturally groans for Michael to bring him “27 and 53” – the Chinese food he has acquired a taste for after scavenging it from the previous homeowner’s bins. 27 and 53, the sum of which is 80. 8 for the sign of infinity and 0 for nothingness, Skellig is literally feeding off a paradox and so it is unsurprising that his whole being is full of contradictions and questions.

If he is an angel, would he really eat flies and mice to survive? If a vagrant, how has he lived so long unnoticed in a dank garage? If a figment of Michael’s imagination, how come his new best friend, Mina, can also see him?

While raising all these questions and dealing with the weighty themes, the play centres itself around various relationships. Michael vicariously cares for his sister by helping Skellig to grow both physically and emotionally. The relationship between the two is never saccharine and is genuinely rewarding, with Edward Harrison deftly transformative in his titular performance.

As a broken creature, an Icarus who has fallen from the sky, he is the vital pivot around which the rest of the play works. Michael also finds a newfound friend in Kate Okello’s headstrong, home-schooled Mina. Okello captures Mina’s natural wonder for the world around her and allows Swann’s Michael to be both enlightened and awed by her intelligence and imagination. The joyous chemistry between the two helps counteract some of the play’s darker moments with much-needed levity.

The relationship between Michael and Simon Darwen’s Dad is a real gem of the piece. Swaying between boisterous banter and emotional honesty, Darwen captures the intensely difficult situation of caring for Michael, supporting him and attempting to maintain his everyday life, while the future of his new daughter is uncertain. I must confess that the topic of open-heart surgery is one close to me; this is dealt with sensitively and carefully throughout the piece, deftly landing the gravity of the situation while never over-egging the potential consequences.

The adaptation from novel to stage is always tricky, even with the original author, David Almond, steering the transition himself. The ensemble takes on the role of choral storyteller, allowing the original narrative voice to have a place onstage while coaxing the action along between the scenes. The brevity of some scenes seems a direct consequence of the adaptation and unfortunately means some of the emotional hit points are missed, especially in the first act. The main casualty of this is Tina Harris’ Mum whose absence from large parts of the play result in her emotional reactions seeming somewhat unwarranted when she is involved.

While not an obvious choice for a family show, this soaring production of Skellig succeeds thanks in no small part to the awesome worldbuilding set and lighting design of its creative team and a stellar titular performance from Edward Harrison.

Skellig is showing at Nottingham Playhouse until Sunday 7 April 

Nottingham Playhouse website

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