Review: Howl’s Moving Castle, Southwark Playhouse

“I don’t cook! I’m a scary and powerful fire demon!”

Though not intended to be, this is a review of a preview. I was booked into the press night for Howl’s Moving Castle at the Southwark Playhouse but the creative team behind the show needed more time to work through some technical challenges and so the press night was delayed by a few days. My diary being what it is, I could not reschedule. This is the first stage adaptation of one of Diana Wynne Jones’ novels – though this was memorably animated by Studio Ghibli into a gorgeous film version – and director/designer team Davy and Kristin McGuire have taken a massive step up from their miniatiure theatre show The Icebook which combined paper cutouts with video work to create an exquisite pop-up book to create a full-scale festive show at the Southwark Playhouse. The ambition at work here is quite considerable and the initial impact of the design with its giant cut-out storybook castle is fantastic. And as the video work starts on the blank screens either side of the castle, it’s clear that this is something quite different.

It’s not a story that immediately springs to mind as one that could be transported onto the stage but Mize Sizemore’s adaptation is cleverly done, paring back the tale to just four characters. Sophie is an 18 year old girl working in a hat shop who unintentionally angers the Witch of the Waste who then casts a spell, turning her into an old woman. To try and break free, Sophie ends up in the home of mysterious wizard Howl, whose flying castle can move between time, space and all manner of dimensions but along this journey, she discovers that she is not the only one in need of rescue.

The use of video and computer generated imagery means that the scope of the show can thus cope with the above demands. We flit from place to place effortlessly and often with great visual aplomb, and there’s several moments of smaller intimate magic, the path of a butterfly traced across the theatre being my favourite. And it is well performed: Daniel Ings is excellent as Howl, a manic presence as the elusive wizard but one who is always engagingly warm, connecting particularly well with Calcifer his fire demon, voiced characterfully by James Wilkes. And Susan Sheridan does well as the aged version of Sophie, capturing the wide-eyed wonder of our heroine but also something of the maturity beyond her years that to keep us invested in her fate. Stephen Fry’s voice is also employed as a narrator to keep things on track lest the story should get away from us, which was a less successful innovation – two voiced-over characters out of five felt one too many.

But in compressing the story into just over an hour and devoting so much energy and resource to the creative ingenuity at work, there’s little complexity left on the stage. It may be trailed as a family show but there’s little by the way of exploration of the characters or their motivations which makes it at times a rather dull dramatic experience – too often, there is just the one actor on stage working with too little material. I wasn’t keen either on Kristen McGuire’s over-emphatic performance as the Witch of the Waste which appears to have been based on Susan Sarandon’s turn in the film Enchanted, in the way she looks, acts and moves. This reduces her to a pantomime villain of sorts which just doesn’t fit in with the rest of the show: where she could have played gone truly wicked or more damaged in order to make things scarier or more tragic, instead there are clumsily broad strokes and the kind of mwah-hah-hahs that can never be taken seriously. More often than not when the director’s name appears elsewhere on the cast/creatives list as well, it is not the best thing and sadly, I think that is the case here.

In other areas, one feels that things will get tighter as the run progresses: video cues could do with being a little sharper in their placement and greater synchronicity between actor and effect is needed in certain key moments. Fyfe Dangerfield’s score is agreeably cinematic in places, especially in the sweeping flights of the castle and at creating varied atmospheres but it is employed too much, occasionally too over-emphatic when the focus should be on the characters talking. The programme notes explain a lot in detailing the way in which the various creatives have come from a range of different artistic fields and how the collaborative process behind the development of the show has been a fruitful one, full of changes, yet crucially rather short. The ingredients are definitely here to create something magical and this should be an excellent learning experience for the McGuires in combining their imaginative and ambitious flair for stagecraft with storytelling that is up to the mark as well. Nonetheless, Howl’s Moving Castle remains an intriguing alternative to the usual festive fare.

Running time: 70 minutes (without interval)
Programme cost: £2
Booking until 7th January

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