HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE
Southwark Playhouse, London, Tuesday 20th December, 2011
Inevitably, any adaptation loses something in the retelling but Mike Sizemore’s dramatisation of Dianna Wynne Jones’s fantasy novel sits well in its simplifications. The play is basically a three-hander with additional pre-recorded voices, one of which is provided by Stephen Fry no less in his honeyed, mellifluous tone. The live cast members perform in front of, behind and with a remarkable set – basically a cut out fairytale Gothic castle, protruding from the cyclorama like an illustration in a pop-up book, onto which are projected scenery and effects in a constantly changing procession of moving images. It is dazzling, enchanting and seductive and just about manages not to upstage the actors completely. The use of technology is astonishing. Fire demon Calcifer (voiced by James Wilkes) dashes from fireplace to flaming torch, a latter-day Puck crossed with Tinkerbell and Jeeves.
Daniel Ings is a dashing, erratic wizard Howl, darting around like a Tim Burton character, balanced by the sedate and warm-hearted Old Sophie (Susan Sheridan) who provides the emotional link to the audience. Howl, like any Beast, must rediscover his own humanity in order for a happy ending to come about. The action, crammed into seventy minutes, tears along much like the titular castle itself – my favourite sequence was when the static cut-out shapes appeared to dash across exotic landscapes, accompanied by exhilarating music by Fyfe Dangerfield. The composer, him off of Guillemots, has more than proved himself in this sphere. His score enhances the mood of each scene, at turns delightful, atmospheric and haunting, but always in a supporting role to the drama.
The sensations of movement and flight are well executed, and the video effects are also brought into play for a fight between the wizard and wicked Witch of the Waste. I would have liked to have seen more made of the seven league boots but I appreciate we can’t have everything we want, and extending the running time and necessitating an interval would have broken the spell cast by this inventive and beautiful production.
The production suits the venue, the Playhouse’s Vault, very well; it is a dark and cavernous space, but I could have done without the accompanying smell of musty cellars – especially when the production is so fresh.