Monday, July 7, 2014

'Once Upon a Nightmare' at the Courtyard Theatre, 5th July 2014

After the hilarious and deservedly successful Death Ship 666, I was seriously happy to see an invitation to Box Step Production's new show drop into my inbox.  Watching a show you've first seen in a rough, embryonic state blossom into critical acclaim and sell out crowds is a lovely experience, and as a bonus I enjoyed that certain pride in being one of the first people to rave about it.  But a year later, have Box Step Productions recaptured that lightning in a bottle that made their last production so fizzingly fun - or is this a case of 'difficult second album' syndrome?

Whereas Death Ship 666 took disaster movies (specifically Titanic) as inspiration, Once Upon a Nightmare settles upon fantasy.  Boiled down to its bones this is a parody of The Wizard of Oz with frequent nods to the heavy hitters in fantasy lit.  In place of Oz we have the Land of Somnia and rather than a chipper, optimistic Dorothy we have the scared, traumatised Sophie.  The conceit of the show is that the big famous adventure has already happened: two young children, Andy and Sophie, were sucked through a portal to another world where (with the help of a magic buffalo and 'The Love Whale') they defeated the sinister Nightmare King, saving the Kingdom.  And everybody lived happily ever after.

There's a neat Guillermo del Toro vibe to some of the designs.
But not for long!  After saving the day the two young heroes were separated; Sophie zapped back home to our world, and Andy remaining in Somnia.  Twenty years pass.  We open to find Sophie trapped in a sadistic mental institute, incarcerated alongside an aged Wendy from Peter Pan and a traumatised, broken Harry Potter - a pleasingly Alan Moorish concept that probably could sustain its own play. Over the intervening time, Sophie's been drugged out and electrozapped in a bid to cure her of 'delusions' of travelling to a mystical land. The therapy has taken such a toll that even Sophie wanders whether she's imagined the whole thing.

Then, at her lowest ebb, she's sucked back to Somnia - and it's worse than ever.  The citizens are unable to sleep for fear of falling under the Nightmare Queen Onyxis (widow of the King Sophie dispatched) and everyone is pretty desperate, not to mention being very hopped up on caffeine.  Once more it falls to Sophie to save the day, but has she still got the goods?

It's a neat little symmetry that Box Step's second show is about someone trying to live up to previous success.  What immediately impresses is just how much effort has gone into this production; technically everything is a big step up from Death Ship 666 - from the care that's gone into the backstory of Somnia, to the intricate costumes (Onyxis costume is particularly outstanding), the sound design, the on stage videos - even the programme is top class, bearing a snazzy illustration and map of Somnia at the back.

But though considerable amounts of sweat have obviously been poured into Once Upon a Nightmare, there is one glaring flaw - this ultimately a parody of Oz and, well, it's not particularly funny. I hesitate to say that as it sounds pretty damning, but it's all too accurate. To qualify that a bit, it's not that the jokes that are in the show aren't funny but simply that there's not that many jokes full stop - at times as much as five minutes of straight drama passing without a single attempt at humour.  Whereas Death Ship 666 used the disaster parody as an excuse to jampack the show with as many gags as humanly possible, this show appears torn between making fun of fantasy and in taking the plight of Somnia entirely seriously.

Fortunately taking the story seriously is pretty easy - it's a testament to the skill of these performers that they succeed in drawing the audience in.  By the time the final curtain fell I was unexpectedly invested in seeing Andy and Sophie's reunion, whether Amastris was going to triumph over her nemesis Fenrir, whether the Nightmare Queen would fall and whether Somnia would wake from its nightmare. The problem with that is when you're sincerely wrapped up in the fate of the characters it's increasingly difficult to laugh at them.  The most extreme consequence of this is the demise of a squeaky squirrel puppet: funny on paper, but here, played sincerely, it becomes bizarrely moving.

Now that is a badass costume - Victoria Blunt as Onyxis
Perversely then, I guess the problem is that these actors are too good - conveying their various desires and fears all too believably.  Particular kudos goes to Victoria Blunt as the increasingly sympathetic villain Onyxis - we can really feel the frustration as her smart, forward thinking plans are foiled by prophecy and meddling kids.  Similarly great is Rachel Bird as a kind of Legolas-y wood elf type who mixes fierce physicality (and excellent stage fighting) with a mournful desperation.  Those two stood out as particularly excellent, but everyone here can hold their head high as they exit the stage.

I half suspect that the reason the show is so earnest is that, in constructing the fantasy world and history of Somnia, the writers became genuinely attached to their mythology. The upshot of this is more drama than comedy; a straightforward dark fantasy adventure with a Terry Pratchett-esque willingness to poke fun at genre conventions.  It's a show that would be a barnstorming success for a younger crowd - who I'd imagine would adore these slightly skewiff dungeons n dragons stylings.  

As for me, I was seriously impressed at the production aspects - this is a great example of stagecraft on a budget - and at the obvious care in the writing and performances, all which create a compelling fantasy world fuelled by genuine emotional development.  I just wish there were a few more gags is all.  

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

0 Responses to “'Once Upon a Nightmare' at the Courtyard Theatre, 5th July 2014”

Post a Comment

© All articles copyright LONDON CITY NIGHTS.
Designed by SpicyTricks, modified by LondonCityNights