Review: The Nightingale & the Rose at The Lion and Unicorn Theatre, London

Friday 3rd August 2018 at The Lion and Unicorn Theatre, Camden.


The Nightingale & the Rose is an adaptation of some of Oscar Wilde’s lesser known and lesser performed work. Orange Moon Theatre bring ‘Wilde’s two most haunting fairytales’ to the stage with whimsy, style and assured performances from the five-strong cast. 

The Infanta (a shrill, archetypal performance from Hannah Webster) is a spoiled sort who decides to make The Little Forest Boy (a sympathetic Felix Grainger) her plaything. Mocking his gnarled features and his eagerness to please to those close to her but out of earshot of him, she showers him with attention, leading to tragedy for the dear little thing. The Little Forest Boy is very much the Ugly Duckling in the forest, with all living things treating him as such, but he’s all skipping feet and lightness of heart after the Infanta’s attentions until the spell of delusion encouraged by the Infanta’s behaviour is shattered. In another part of the forest, a young lover, a student (an earnest Victor Mellors), seeks a red rose to woo his very spoiled, very entitled love interest (a perfectly haughty Claudia Carroll). Feeling sick of heart, he’s spotted by The Nightingale (a sweet-voiced, Charlotte Sparey), a good-hearted creature who loves nothing more than love, and seeks to help this young man to be the purest, truest of lovers to the one he is so desperate to secure. So in love with the idea of love is The Nightingale that she makes it her life’s work to provide the young student with the rose he requires, with dramatic consequences.

Along the way, we meet all the living things of the forest; uppity flowers, snooty animals and witty reptiles. It’s uncanny and thoroughly entertaining to see Wilde’s skilled social satire extended to the natural world – put a bustle on that flower with her nose in the air and we’d have that recognisable vision of the risible rich Wilde is so renowned for crafting with such great observation and wit. Director Claudia Carroll and Movement Director Sara Paige have an eye for making simple theatre in a basic space as stylish and engaging as is possible; movement is graceful and precise, often bringing moments of comedy to the fore with great physicality to accompany – the lizard and the cluster or birds being two glowing examples. Synchronised movement is as sharp as the thorn the Nightingale must face, and the confidence of the cast make these other-worldly tales impressively credible in the confines of black box theatre. The cast as a whole narrate the tale, acting out the action as they do so, giving the performance a considered fluidity while simultaneously allowing a strong cast plenty of opportunities to shine with voices and accents, movement and characterisation. Notable performances include Victor Mellors’ awkward, desperate student, Charlotte Spacey’s endearing innocence as The Nightingale and Felix Grainger as the gleeful Little Forest Boy – Grainger plays the journey from happiness to torment to force sympathy from all. 

I’d certainly say this piece would be wonderful for children’s theatre, but I’m not sure the ‘haunting’ descriptor in the marketing is accurate enough; although these tales feature loss and sadness, making them a departure from modern versions of classic fairytales and closer in nature to Grimm’s originals, they’re still performed florally and with an innocence, despite the dark demands placed on characters and the sweet creatures led astray. It’s performed with a lightness which gives way to the tragic moments in gentle, lamenting ways rather than being a deliciously grim adult tale or gruesome fairytales – it’s far from Roald Dahl’s Twisted Tales for a point of reference. Orange Moon Company present the tales in a sharp 50 minutes, and it’s well worth seeing if you like fairytales and whimsical theatre delivered with come nice stylised movement to accompany narration, but less so if you’re after truly dark fairytales.

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