Saturday before 0th Week. Radcliffe square is ankle-deep in snow. Straggling winter tourists dominate the term-time student streets. As I head into Brasenose to join The Magic Toyshop in rehearsal, the place seems deserted. But the cast have been there for a week, working on what sounds like my six year old cousin’s fantasy.
They are ready to run something, the director tells me, so I switch my camcorder on. Then the unexpected happens. ‘If there’s one thing I cannot stand, it’s cold porridge,’ says Philip, the play’s patriarch figure – and the room falls dead silent.
It is said in the theatre that you cannot play the King. Only the court can show you are the King by the way they treat you. And when the play’s younger characters were cowed into silence by his seemingly mundane remark, I knew two things. Firstly, that Philip is a king here. And, secondly, that the ‘porridge’ reference couldn’t be further from Goldilocks.
This is no fairy tale. Dialogue and action hide a torrent of violence under the surface. I watched the rest of the ten-minute segment, and realised that Philip was a figure of abject terror. And in the second half, says writer Theo Merz, he gets even worse.
‘It sounds like a kid’s story, but the second act is very disturbing’. Merz adapted the script from Angela Carter’s novel of the same name. It’s an unusual tale, written in 1967 by this popular feminist writer. Melanie steals her mother’s wedding dress and roams the night outside. The next day, her parents are dead, and she must learn to live with her menacing uncle Philip – and her growing sexual awakening. I ask Merz what made him decide to adapt this story for the stage.
He cites the challenge as a motivating factor, and explains ‘I’ve always really liked Angela Carter. Jess and Katie decided, before I’d even read this book, that they wanted to do The Magic Toyshop, some way, somehow. Jess asked me if I’d be interested in adapting it, so I said okay.’
Jess Edwards and Katie Carpenter, the play’s two directors, are refreshingly realistic about their play’s prospects. ‘The Playhouse have taken this semi-financial gamble on us’, says Edwards, when I ask her about how ambitious her project is.
‘It’s a new script, an original score and we’ve added three characters’, summarises Carpenter. It’s been a long while since the Playhouse hosted a show written by a student. Add to this the unconventional juxtaposition of childish themes with adult ideas and one marvels at the courage of everyone involved in this venture.
Yet as I leave the world of The Magic Toyshop and trudge once more into the January snow, I cannot help but be inspired by their optimism. Despite the play’s surreal elements, writer Merz is confident it will send the audience home happy. ‘It’s still a romance’, he says. ‘It’s a cracking tale.’