Thursday, March 25, 2010

[reviewed for The Public Reviews]

Shapeshifter and Fresh Glory Productions at the Mercury Theatre Colchester


We see the landing stage first – a storm-wracked, ramshackle wooden affair. Adrift on the Mercury stage, it will be the raft, Huck's home, the island, Aunt Sally's farm …
Then we hear the harmonies: seven offstage voices in One More River. They converge on the stage, and we're off on Huck and Jim's momentous journey, further and further south down the Mississippi, finding trouble as they go.
James Graham's skilful adaptation deliberately emphasises Twain's themes of slavery and freedom, which, as he says, are sadly relevant 150 years on. But much of the fun remains, the word-play, the picaresque adventures. And the excellently produced programme – the only advertisement is for Bridgewater's snake oil – gives invaluable background to the history, the geography, the novel and the play.
John Terry's production, done for the intimate Theatre at Chipping Norton, mixes tender reflection and rumbustious theatricality. I liked the way the family home was conjured up by three actors holding lamp, bookshelf and window. The steamboat collision was dramatically suggested with very modest means. And the multi-layered presentation of the feud: overtly theatrical, with Jim roped in for a bit part, and the whole sub-plot done as a music hall production number. Wonderful. The Great Escape at the end, master-minded by Jos Vantyler's slightly camp Tom Sawyer, was another highlight. Either side of the interval, another thespian reference, as the Duke's “David Garrick the Younger” gives his Hamlet to the local flatheads, then scarpers with the takings, avoiding retribution and the critics' vegetables.
Ian Harris was inspired as the conman, his funeral service as imperfectly remembered as his Shakespeare. He also played a mean fiddle, and the musical saw, in the folksy incidental music which, with the atmospheric lighting, did so much to maintain the mood.
Graeme Dalling was a likeable Huck, who'd look as much at home in the 21st century as the 19th, engagingly taking us into his confidence, sharing, more or less willingly, his memories of the mighty Mississippi. His travelling companion, Jim the runaway slave, was played with powerful dignity by Joe Speare.
A trio of effective characters from David Brett, notably as Huck's abusive father, and the Colonel with his wobbly moustache. Lucy Pearman provided romantic interest, a touching Mary-Jane, while Rosalind Cressy coped with six older ladies who variously fuss, boss and mother the lad as he makes his optimistic way through the world.
The original tale is episodic, long and rambling. This version attempted to give the story some structure, and achieved a real sense of moving on, of Huck and Jim's river road to freedom.

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews

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