Clockheart Boy

Sat 3rd November 2012

reviews

Victoria Ibbett

at 17:50 on 3rd Nov 2012

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'Clockheart Boy' is billed as a family show and the fact that this is ‘for children aged 6+’ is worth bearing in mind. It is a play about loss and grief, transposed for the sake of its young audience into the land of fairytale.

The eponymous hero of the play is a child, washed up on the shores of a professor’s seaside castle. Taking the place of the professor’s long-lost daughter he reinvigorates the castle with laughter, his youthful enthusiasm sweeping away the hitherto inconsolable grief of his surrogate father.

'Clockheart Boy' succeeds, for kids, on the back of its sheer visual flamboyance. The set is straight out of the realm of pantomime, only intensified, exaggerated and rendered even more colourful. The characters that populate it are distilled from kid’s fantasy: the professor’s motley crew of creations decked out in umbrella-hats; flying goggles and light-up headpieces. The professor himself was so reminiscent of Professor Weeto that it verged on the distracting. In all it was so visually overpowering that it could only take a kid’s capacity for immersion to save it from being disruptively OTT.

Fortunately, there is stuff in here for adults too. Dumbshow, the production company, avoided boring recourse to suggestive innuendo, which is such a frequent trope of children’s theatre. Instead, the adult members of the audience were encouraged to participate in the surprisingly powerful emotional bent of the storyline. What begins as a trippy, over saturated excursion into the pre-pubescent imagination winds up in a poignant lesson in bereavement. Praise is due to the professor’s daughter, Sophie (Hester Bond) who does a wonderful job of switching between sweet phantom of the professor’s grief stricken mind, to terrifying automaton haunting his physical world, symbol of the pernicious power of obsessive recollection.

Whilst the play provides valuable lessons in the emotional nuances of grief; some of its other lessons were less welcome. In a bizarre scene in which the Clockheart Boy is taught the nature of Love, the Professor parodies a demanding, floppy limbed woman, incapable of opening doors without the aid of a ‘gentleman’ and absurdly grateful to be told that she ‘doesn’t look pregnant’. This kind of stereotyping struck a maleficent note in a play that so clearly sets out not only to entertain but also to educate its young audience.

The cast was admirable enough, but uneven. In children’s theatre, over-acting is sort of a given, but there is a certain measure involved. Gobble (Nicola Cutcher) exceeded this measure and became ridiculous – more so than intended; while Clockheart Boy (Michael Bryher) performed a difficult part with talent. Childish right down to his twitching feet and restless shuffling of his arms, Bryher did very well in a challenging role.

This was an exciting performance by a professional cast. I surprised myself by not only enjoying it, but by also entering into its process of catharsis. This is well worth taking the kid’s to.

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Michael McLeod

at 01:49 on 4th Nov 2012

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Children’s theatre is a tricky thing. Never as children are we ever quite so mesmerized, exhilarated, or flat-out bored out of our skulls as when watching a play. As though that weren’t mammoth enough a task, you also have to keep the parents awake, and that’s no easy feat either. A truly successful piece of children’s theatre must offer something worthwhile to both categories. ‘Clockheart Boy’ is one of these (all too rare) plays, offering delightfully colourful characters and bags of heart to children, and an extraordinary emotional poignancy to adults.

The play follows an aged professor who has lost his daughter many years ago. As he continues to search for her, with the help of his inventions (a collection of clockwork characters with special talents), he discovers a boy washed upon the shore without a heart. Using his skills he replaces his heart with clockwork, and takes to boy in as part of the ‘family’. As a play aimed at children it’s easy to see the appeal: the bright, likeable characters are portrayed by a committed and talented cast, filling the stage with energy, and the play is underpinned by a subtle yet emotionally charged live score by composer and pianist Rollo Clarke. Lotte Allan is particularly captivating as ‘Peepers’, a girl/invention with eyes who can see the truth, and best friend to the eponymous Clockheart Boy.

The sets and costumes are immediately striking and memorable, pulling you into another world as though it were perfectly natural. The young boy’s journey to discover the meaning of love and life draws of staples of children’s stories, but never feels overly contrived, and his burgeoning friendship with Peepers rings particularly true.

As a story for adults however, ‘Clockheart Boy’ offers something rather different. Themes of grief, guilt, life and death are woven into the very fabric of this play. Whilst children will undoubtedly pick up on this, it takes an adult to truly appreciate the gravity of some of the scenes. This is what sets ‘Clockheart Boy’ apart as an exceptional play. Despite the fantastical characters and surroundings, the story of the Professor losing his daughter is thoroughly grounded. Watching the characters on stage go through, and then attempt to cope with, every parent’s worst nightmare is not always an easy thing to do. Jack Cole and Hester Bond (as the Professor and the double role of his daughter Sophie and the mysterious ‘Ballerina’, respectively) play these scenes with extraordinary skill to harrowing effect. The professor’s inventions, and their right to life, also bring some moral ambiguity to the play. These issues are particularly complex in the case of ‘the Ballerina’, an attempt by the long grieving professor to replace his lost daughter. Her life, however artificial, is shrouded in tragic circumstance and confusion, and her warped morality and obsession with her ‘father’ recall aspects of Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’. Like all plays for children however, it ends with hope, which is as cathartic and poignant for the adults as for any child, and the weighty themes of death and acceptance are dealt with in a graceful and comforting way.

As a modern fairy tale, ‘Clockheart Boy’ is in many ways decidedly old-fashioned, mixing darker adult themes with whimsical characters in a way people are rarely bold enough to do these days. Children throughout the audience should be entertained and engaged for the duration, but they may wonder why all the grown-ups can’t stop crying.

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