Anyone who saw Jessica Edwards’ performance in Decadence or Katie Carpenter’s work on Nights at the Circus, two of the outstanding plays of last term, will already know something of their potential. But working together to direct this innovative project they promise to surpass both those productions.
The Magic Toyshop is an adaption of a novel by Angela Carter, a central figure in twentieth-century feminist literature. At heart, it is a story about growing up. Following the death of her parents, Melanie (Bella Hammand) moves to live in her uncle’s London toyshop. Here she has to come to terms with her uncle’s malicious scheming and her own confusing love for Finn (Ollo Clark).
Much of the power of the play comes from the unsettling mixture of gritty realism and grotesque theatricality. Melanie, repeatedly told she talks like ‘women’s magazines’, begins the play with an idealised and innocent approach to life. Hammand’s portrayal is intensely vulnerable, juxtaposed with Clark’s exuberance and unpredictability. Despite the clear differences between their characters, the actors’ chemistry makes their relationship wholly convincing.
This romance unfolds before a highly visual backdrop, with many spectacular scenes. Melanie’s uncle has a passion for puppet shows, which take over the whole stage, blurring distinctions between reality and fantasy. The actors who play the puppets took part in a series of workshops from professional theatre companies so that they move as if they were actually wooden figures guided by a puppet master.
The adaption for stage was carried out by Theo Merz, who worked closely with the directors and the cast itself to ensure that the script sounds like a piece of drama rather than a clumsy rehashing of the book. The musical score, written by Laurence Osborn and performed by a string quartet, provides a ghostly soundscape, echoing the mood of the play.
At times funny, at times sinister, The Magic Toyshop is always deeply compelling. To stage a student production at the Playhouse requires an appreciation of how to fill such a large space but as I watched I had the distinct impression I was witnessing something special. The play is the culmination of months of hard work by some of Oxford’s most talented and imaginative individuals.