The Hand-Me-Down People

Wed 8th – Mon 27th August 2012

reviews

Karl Dando

at 02:34 on 12th Aug 2012

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This is not a kids’ show. The title, with its ramshackle jumble of hyphens, might suggest otherwise and yes you might remain none the wiser even when entering the theatre as people dressed as toys dance about a set of giant dice and an oversized pencil. But this new play by writer/director Adam Wells has little interest in the cutesiness implied by the costumes. It is a thoroughly miserable, though thankfully rather good, meditation on obsolescence and death, which, while not dealing in overly complicated language, is pitched and performed as very much adult drama. Speaking to someone involved afterwards, I was told that the show is advertised as ‘family friendly’ because they believed kids would still find it engrossing and entertaining enough. Today (at least) she was wrong: most of the children at the performance fidgeted constantly, the keenly-observed existential turmoil onstage little more diverting for them regardless of the fact that it was coming from a doll. And, it must be said, a fair few of the adults in the audience – particularly a couple sat behind me – didn’t quite know what to make of it either, muttering and tittering like children throughout. Wells’ allegorical aesthetic perhaps has been too well-realised by Rachel Kennedy’s set design, if such a criticism even begins to make some kind of sense.

But I don’t want to overstate the point. Despite not initially knowing quite what to make of ‘The Hand-Me-Down-People,’ once one gets on board with its strange juxtapositions then we find a thoughtful, intelligent, moving-if-not-exactly-satisfying piece of theatre. There is really very little in the way of narrative progression, beyond a series of conversations establishing the particular nature of each character’s misery, and the whole thing seems to end before it’s really gotten going, but I’m inclined to think that that is kind of the point. We might criticise likewise the slightly muddled opening for not completely coherently bringing us into its world, but once the play is underway the opening in retrospect seems entirely appropriate to the general tone of melancholy bewilderment. The effect of the play is cumulative: having constant live piano from the Music Box Lady seems initially a rather gimmicky reason to sacrifice so much floor space but she, with her desperate repetition of the same limited repertoire, eventually becomes a poignant symbol for the play’s central concerns.

The actors are all good, but particular laurels are due Robert Leventhal as the pitiful one-armed Piper. It is through him that the serious sadness of the play is first made clear, and his moodiness remains compelling to the end. Conrad Cohen and Georgina Noné have a particularly nice chemistry as the lumbering Monster and Doll, the new arrival, and Alice Radcliffe as the aforementioned Music Box elicits a lot through just a stare. The performances are enthusiastic across the board, but thankfully not one overwhelms or undermines the slow, sad, circular movements of the drama, though the high-pitched squeak Noné puts on for her character does seem slightly at odds with the more naturalistic style of the other actors.

This is an odd production, but an intriguing, even admirable one. Its coherent realisation of a singular vision is to be applauded, and everything from the lights to the acting to the costume and set design has a satisfying sense of professionalism about it. These are exactly the kinds of people for whom the phrase ‘ones to watch’ was invented.

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Daniel Malcolm

at 09:44 on 12th Aug 2012

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Think vintage Toy Story with a literary moral. The hand-me-down toys don't just want to be played with again, they yearn for a golden age of story telling.

It's a quirky cast: the monster has a complex, Prince Charming has been mangled by a dog, the witch has multiple-personality-disorder, and Barbie can't quite fill the shoes of the missing princess. But this production isn't just messing around with fairy-tale stereotypes, it also plays around with the bleed between role-play and reality. Charming is defined by his story - claiming that he is obliged to love the princess - whereas the monster rebels against his fairy-tale persona in his bid for acceptance and love.

The characters are well complemented by their costumes - particularly Charming's Robin-Hood style get-up. But the monster isn't nearly hideous enough for a script that has characters shrink from holding his hand. And the warts that Charming could hardly see beyond are invisible to the audience.

As is appropriate, Barbie really stands out amongst the more traditional toys in her glam-glam top and short skirt. Suspicious of newfangled plastic toys, the older figurines treat her with prejudice: 'she's too glittery to be a real person' - a sparkling moment in a slightly patchy script.

The visual effect - so important in children's theatre - is charming but underwhelming. Props are limited to a playing card and a hinged trunk rather unconvincingly labelled "Match Box". You also have to use your imagination to believe that the square, unraised stage is a shelf, though this dimensional limitation is spectacularly overcome by the dramatic cutting of lights and music for the Princess' leap.

The show is strongest at exploring the theme of suspended time - impressed upon the audience by the characters' endless complaints about the repetitiveness of the music box's repertoire. Over the 50 minutes the audience comes to sympathise, delightful though the fairytale tinkling is at first. Less convincing is the show's sermonising. Its nostalgia for a time before Playstations, when children told stories rather than watched Mario men, is hard to take from a play that stumbles at the end of its own story.

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