The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn

Mon 15th – Sat 20th August 2016


Ben Ray

at 20:03 on 21st Aug 2016



Having read Mark Twain’s adventure novels as a young child, I was extremely worried that the Italia Conti Ensemble’s adaption of ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ would mangle and twist the book into an unrecognisable form. Surely they couldn’t fit all those rip-roaring adventures into a single hour, on a single stage? However, I needn’t have worried. Not only is the play faithful and respectful to the original text, but the plot flows smoothly from one scene and confrontation to the next- indeed, watching this performance gives one the sense of being swept along through the novel much like Huckleberry and Jem down the Mississippi river.

‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’, for those who haven’t read the novel, is the story of a boy Huckleberry and his friend Tom Sawyer as they try to rescue a runaway slave, Jem, by taking her down the Mississippi river. Along the way they encounter numerous villains and saviours, from two brutal feuding families of the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons to a couple of conmen who purport to be a Duke and the Dauphin of France. The pair battle evil slavers to keep their friend safe, and in the end it is only Tom Sawyer’s quick thinking and a cunning trick with a bag of gold that saves the day.

The reason that all these stories are effortlessly and intelligently played out on stage, managing to appear coherent and uncluttered, is the brilliant use of staging and props by the cast. From one moment to the next, a bath tub turns into a raft, and then into a coffin, whilst the collection of boards scattered around the stage are constantly morphing from trees to buildings to secret passages. The cast brilliantly manage to transform each changing background into something new with every turn, supplying everything from animal noises to choruses and gunshots with their collective voices. There is even a guitar played on stage in Southern style, creating haunting songs that not only set an atmosphere but also allow for smooth scene changes.

I have seen few stage adaptions of books that have successfully captured the mood and tone of the original story- this performance is one of them. I was so engrossed in the plot that after the play’s end, I was shocked to hear the cast slip easily out of their deep Southern accents into their own Scottish brogues. And maybe that’s proof of a great show- to suspend belief, and convince the audience of a new reality: one of rafts, and rivers, and endless adventures.


Ed Grimble

at 22:42 on 21st Aug 2016



Mark Twain’s ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ is an American classic- indeed, one of the first to be written in a colourful vernacular English. Following on from the events in ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’, the novel is a wonderful exploration of youthful adventure and male friendship. It being one of my regular re-reads, I entered the theatre with some trepidation; trembling with the fear that my beloved Tom, Huck, and Jim were about to be reduced to all singing all dancing musical parodies of their literary selves. The Italia Conti Ensemble did prove me pleasantly wrong, however, and their reimagining of Twain’s text is energetic, respectful, and awash with a brooding darkness that makes for a very attractive theatrical spectacle.

Whenever one watches a stage musical, the old adage that no one can act, sing, or dance, undoubtedly rears its ugly head. On this front, however, the cast do deserve praise. Stripped down lice music accompanies competent singing throughout- the decision not to break into inexplicable song at every opportunity certainly means that the musical numbers feel relevant, and like they are serving some purpose in the narrative. Some of the acting is questionable; this is to be expected with a source text that just so many demands on emotional range and, crucially, the ability to perform for an extended period of time in a vernacular that is only really heard this side of the Atlantic as part of jokes and caricatures. When the cast give their thanks to the audience at the end of the play in their heavy Scottish brogues, there is a sense of collective shock throughout the auditorium.

What makes Italia Conto Ensembles pieces really stand out, however, is its wonderfully choreographed and executed movement sequences. Twain’s novel spans vast geographical distances: from dusty towns to raging rivers to rugged and overgrown wilderness. Remarkably, there is never any doubt in the minds of the audience as to where we are spatially in this musical. The set is almost modular, consisting almost exclusively of upturned apple boxes and some old sheeting. These are rearranged in a vast array of combinations to construct Huck’s raft, the horse and cart, and a secret tunnel. These transitions are seamless- and rival in execution some of the far simpler set manipulation I have seen at this year’s Fringe. This play is one of the easiest, and yet complex, suspensions of disbelief in which I have been asked to partake.

If the play falters slightly, it is in trying to capture the myriad plot strands and constantly reappearing characters who population Twain’s Missouri. Multi-roling when almost everyone is clad in boots and dusty waistcoats and speaks with a heavy Southern drawl means that those unfamiliar with the novel may find themselves fighting to keep pace with the narrative. In almost all other respects, however, this adaptation is one of the best novel to stage transformations I have seen in a long time.


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