The Ruby in the Smoke

Wed 3rd – Mon 29th August 2016

reviews

Ellen Hodgetts

at 19:53 on 24th Aug 2016

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The set of ‘The Ruby in the Smoke’ is brilliant: a crowded cityscape complete with lit windows, it is immediately evocative of the Victorian time period in which this adaptation of Philip Pullman’s novel is set. It has hidden depths, as it is revealed that the blocks that make up the buildings are hollow, and open out to create shelves and tables as the scene requires, whilst also allowing quick access to the props which support this technically ambitious performance. The nature of the scenery sets the tone early on for the inventiveness of this new adaptation. Ambitious and energetic, the cast of six manage to play fourteen characters between them, switching with ease and ability whilst demonstrating an impressive range of accents.

It is ambition, however, which ultimately contributes to the downfall of this play. There is too much going on. Being unfamiliar with Philip Pullman’s original version of ‘The Ruby in the Smoke’, I find the plot at times hard to follow, due to the large number of scene changes, locations and characters. It is a mystery-ridden narrative which follows the recently orphaned Sally Lockhart as she attempts to make sense of the secrets left behind after her father’s death, which revolve around ‘the seven blessings’ and a much-desired ruby. Much of this is told, however, through rushed sections of dialogue and conversational exchanges with a large and variable group of characters to attempt to fill in the gaps.

This is further hindered by the span of locations covered, as we rush across London from a shipping company’s office to a photographer’s studio to the countryside of Swaleness without pausing for breath. The small venue size with which they are working inhibits the clarity of these relocations, although this is something the cast work with well by using a series of quick yet detailed costume changes to help with the demarcation.

The performance from all cast members is solid and convincing, and there are exciting and innovative moments of physical theatre – a particular favourite being the mimicry of the flooding ship on which Sarah’s father died. Particular mention, however, must go to Tris Hobson as Reverend Bedwell and his twin brother, who makes slick transitions between the two characters with an irrepressible energy and physicality.

Whilst this performance has its standout moments, it is too much for merely an hour, and as a result at times feels rushed and unconvincing. As a result of this, the resolution of the mystery becomes anti-climactic, as emotions and responses are never able to fully develop before we are whisked off to the next narrative section.

‘The Ruby in the Smoke’ is a performance with a lot of potential - whilst not a revolutionary or groundbreaking piece of theatre, it is undeniably entertaining, carried out with impressive staging and direction, and would appeal to any age group.

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Becky Wilson

at 12:57 on 25th Aug 2016

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Converting novels from page to stage is rarely simple. But condensing one of Philip Pullman’s intricately-layered stories into an hour-long slot at the Fringe is in another realm entirely. Reprint Productions’ modest cast of six are forced to carry the burden of fourteen varied characters, dark Victorian intrigue, and an extremely convoluted mystery plot upon their shoulders. Thanks to some incredible acting talent and visionary direction, they just about manage to pull it all off.

The pace of ‘The Ruby in the Smoke’ is so fast that, with all the twists and turns, I almost get whiplash. While, in theory, a fast pace should sweep up the audience in a tide of excitement, in this production we are left by the wayside, scratching our heads. The cast are spread too thinly across too many roles; at times, it is difficult to be certain who is playing who. Given ‘The Ruby in the Smoke’ is marketed as young adult fiction, a shrewd move would be to either simplify the plot, or extend the same action over a longer running time. I doubt anyone under the age of eighteen, if not already well-acquainted with the story, would be capable of following this play at its current breakneck speed.

Indeed, lengthening the play would also solve its emotional shallowness. Rebecca Lenihan strikes me as a little stiff in the central role of Sally Lockhart, but this is because she is never granted enough time to showcase her talent. She is rushed from her displacement at the start of the play to a final act of rebellion without space to breathe or reflect. This leaves the entire show feeling emotionless and robotic in its relentless drive forwards.

However, this fast pace is partly what makes the performances of the ensemble cast so ridiculously impressive. Each actor plunges into varied accents, physicalities and some fantastically imaginative moments of physical theatre with a polished energy. Across the hour, there is not a single moment in which any of their masks slip, despite never being given more than a few minutes offstage to catch their breath; such unswerving commitment to their roles absolutely must not go uncredited. Tris Hobson’s performance stands out. His switch between the roles of a sober Reverend and dying opium addict within seconds, aided by some very sharp direction and neat teamwork is, quite simply, stunning.

With one of the best sets at the Fringe, some incredibly original direction and a cast that hits the ground running, ‘The Ruby in the Smoke’ is a fantastic piece of theatre. It is such a shame that the pace of the thing has been so ridiculously misjudged. If this glaringly obvious flaw is rectified, this show would be an irrefutable success.

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