Saturday 31st September 2017 at the Grand Opera House, York.
Based on the wonderful nonsense poem by Lewis Carroll, this take on The Hunting of the Snark from RGM Productions, Alice House Theatre and Moya Productions, is very hit and miss for me. While the promise of silliness from the advertising is evident in places, my impression is that this piece seems to be a segue between thoroughly silly, fun-loving children’s theatre and a more straight-forward, light drama for slightly older children who might appreciate a good story as much as a few injections of the silly. Directed by Gemma Colclough, the show is billed as a family show and it does fit the bill, but I think the advertising leans towards a very young audience when in fact much of the humour seems too mature; references to Justin Beiber and Olly Murrs along with a few other even older references are either aimed at the parents or the tweens in the audience, but there were very few audible laughs from the smallest audience members around me it has to be said. The free and frequent laughter we’ve come to expect as the underscore to a family or kids’ show was unfortunately as rare at this particular performance as the Snark is to the fictional expedition.
The performance got off to a shaky start as sound issues made the opening musical number Breaking News near impossible to comprehend; the music drowned out the singing and the actors seemed oblivious for they did nothing to naturally boost the volume of their own voices, despite having mics. Overall, the story itself is engaging and well constructed; a Snark has been spotted and a bunch of mis-matched characters hop on a boat to catch it. The Butcher has a hankering for Snark Meat, The Bellman is eager to show off his expertise under the command of the money mad Banker whose son yearns for love and attention – so much so that he becomes a stowaway in order to follow his inattentive father on his money making voyage. There’s sympathy to be felt for The Boy but the relationship between The Boy and his father, even with the intentional distance, shows no real affection or connection. The most engaging characters are the madcap ones; the kleptomaniac Bandersnatch, the exhaustingly forgetful Baker, the Trunchbull-esque Butcher and the animal characters. There’s certainly enough in the narrative to engage youngsters even if the production as a whole doesn’t necessarily deliver on the sheer fun-filled delight alluded to in the marketing.
It has to be said that this was the most silent audiences of children I’ve ever witnessed. Attempts to interact directly are limited and while all family shows shouldn’t feel obliged to adopt this heavy handed trait, this particular production may have benefitted significantly. The silence may well be down to the fact that the stage in this venue can feel distant and a show like this tends to benefit from closer proximity to the audience. More than this though, the silence suggests contradictory possibilities; that the humour and the action wasn’t engaging enough to excite and invite interaction but also that the youngsters were engaged enough not to get fidgety and naughty. Such observations suggest that the production is more suited to youngsters at the point of development in which they begin to value a well spun drama as much as a few well placed snippets of physical or verbal comedy. Aside from a reference to Frozen, a few mildly thrilling/ threatening lines from The Butcher and more frequent silliness in the last twenty minutes or so, there wasn’t much in this to awaken a lethargic young Saturday afternoon audience. I’ve seen many shows in which the cast recognise an uncommitted audience and immediately rectify the situation with some ad-libbed interaction, but for some reason members of this cast allowed their energy to be sapped by a non-participatory audience rather than enervating their audience to lift the performance.
Jordan Leigh-Harris’ performance as the protagonist, The Boy, is perturbing. Leigh-Harris adopts a painfully false high pitched voice which quickly becomes grating and detracts from what is otherwise a good performance. She later sings and says a few lines in a more natural voice and I have no idea why she couldn’t have performed as The Boy with that voice. Equally, Simon Turner’s performance as The Banker felt very non-commital and while he could have raised big laughs in some of his scenes, his performance tended to be more flat than outrageously indignant, as would have been far more suitable, particularly in scenes with the Jubjub. Ben Galphin is by far the most engaging and enervating member of the cast; his performance is a classic example of a seasoned children’s performer and of the few laughs to be heard from the young audience, many belonged to him as the self-assured, clear-voiced Bellman and the super silly Jubjub. His acting is larger than life, played to the back of the room and thoroughly exudes confidence and energy. Will Bryant is amusing as the forgetful, chaotic Baker and showcases some good physical comedy. As the Bandersnatch, his performance is reminiscent of Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka, which works very nicely. Galphin and Bryant’s stints as the lairy bullies is a highlight early on and if that energy had been matched for the duration, the show would have been great. Polly Smith offers some excellent character quick changes, some adept and brilliant accents and a playfully threatening villain as The Butcher – I would have liked to see more of her in this production.
The Hunting of the Snark considers itself a family musical and features some light hearted musical numbers from Gareth Cooper such as Get Up, Get Going and Booware the Boojum and there are some nice harmonies to be heard in places – the snatches of Breaking News that I caught also boasts some witty lyrics and good vocals. Set design from Justin Nardella makes the most of simplicity and costuming is a strength in this production – the knitted skirt in particular being a great source of visual comedy. The biggest strength of the production for me, aside from Galphin’s performance, are the lovable creature characters. The silliest scenes of all feature the Jubjub; a rainbow coloured creature styled from pom poms and visually striking with googly eyes and a lop-sided beak. The Jubjub is played with mischievous charm by Galphin and there is some great physical comedy to be found in his chaotic movement and the visual kick of his beak being larger than the Banker’s head as he has tantrums and attempts to communicate with the foolish man. The Knitting Beaver is brought to life by various members of the cast and the puppet is beautifully made with a sweet face to inspire connection and proves itself to have great likeability.
I can’t fault the whole production, but this particular performance that I attended was pock marked with a range of flaws that couldn’t be ignored. I tend to love children’s shows and even though I did my best to channel my inner child here, I couldn’t bring myself to enjoy it as much as I wanted to – if I also take the reactions of the children around me into account, then I have to say that despite significant strengths, The Hunting of the Snark somehow misses its mark. Had the cast had the confidence or the directive to engage with the audience early on when it became evident that there was very little investment, the performance as a whole would have been more energised and less lack lustre, but who knows? This take on The Hunting of the Snark is likely to interest older children and there are laughs to be had , but this isn’t exactly the madcap laugh-a-minute tour de force it bills itself as or which early critics of the show in its original form found.
The Hunting of the Snark continues to tour and you can find out more information here.