theSpaces @ Surgeons Hall, 14 – 28 August 2010
Reviewed for the Oxford Times
Is the pen really mightier than the sword, or is that just a comfortable fiction dreamed up by the people wielding the pens?
In Philip Ridley’s Sparkleshark, a group of teenagers face up to their parents and popularity issues, and even tame the school bully, all through the power of spontaneous storytelling. While it’s important to demonstrate to young people facing similar challenges that the underdog can sometimes triumph, this production isn’t quite believable enough: it comes across as the underdog’s fantasy, rather than as something that could actually happen.
What Ridley’s script asks us to believe — what Bouncy Castle Productions need to make us believe — is that the bully, Russell, would willingly set aside his traditional persecution of shy, creative ‘geek’ Jake (Alex Harding) in order to help act out a fairy tale made up on the spot by Jake and his allies.
Ridley provides several layers of justification for Russell’s turnabout — Jake’s shrewd, subtle flattery; the opportunity to impress some girls; rebellion among his more easily distracted minions — but the performances don’t quite sell that story.
Jack Peters comically overplays Russell as a pantomime heart-throb in the Lord Flashheart mould; he struts, preens and forgets his lackeys’ names with a self-absorbed disregard for anyone’s feelings but his own. This helps establish his bully credentials early on, and partially explains his behaviour — he’s more interested in asserting his own superiority than in any specific grievance against Jake — but makes it difficult to buy into his redemptive arc.
Meanwhile, Fen Greatley plays Shane, Russell’s right-hand man, as a shy and indecisive young poseur, instead of the moody and mysterious figure he’s built up to be before his entrance. When Shane decides to join in Jake’s game he is supposed to pull the more simple-minded Russell along in his wake, but the way Greatley plays him he seems like just the sort that Russell would absent-mindedly crush, not grudgingly follow.
When every member of the cast approaches their role with such enthusiasm, the production can’t help but produce some uplifting moments. When Russell does finally, reluctantly accept his role and settle into his “golden chariot” (a shopping trolley) for a spin around the stage, it’s impossible to resist a little smile.
The spaces between these heartwarming moments, however, are too far apart to hold the attention of the target audience. On the day of this review, there was just one member of the appropriate age group in the audience — and he was fidgeting by 15 minutes in.
Written by Philip Ridley
Crew includes Aumna Iqbal (director), Parisa Azimy (costume designer) and Simon Johnson (lighting designer)
Cast includes Fen Greatley (Shane), Alex Harding (Jake), Aumna Iqbal (Finn), Anna Lewis (Speed), Rafaella Marcus (Polly), Julia McLaren (Natasha), Jack Peters (Russell), Roz Stone (Carol) and Nai Webb (Buzz)