Edinburgh Fringe 2009
Lilly Through The Dark
The River People
Venue: Bedlam Theatre
Festival: Edinburgh Fringe
Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ meets Philip Pullman’s ‘The Amber Spyglass’ in this tale of a slightly confused, lost girl wandering through the afterlife in search of her dead father. That The River People put every atom of their beings into their shows in plain to see, but at times the underworld tour drags its heels a little.
Lilly understandably misses her recently dearly departed father. He once told her that if she’s ever lost or unsure, she ought to remain where she is and he’ll find her – she interprets this to mean that she should slit her wrists and look for him in the underworld. What follows from that decision is a faintly magical, faintly mythical journey through ‘the deadlands’ in search of the dead man. The River People handle their sensitive material with an inventive style and evident dedication, but don’t quite avoid the inherent pitfalls along the way – such as the fact that their mythical landscape is inevitably bleak and unchanging, and its inhabitants are the dead. As such, there isn’t much scope for variety of character or emotion for much of the piece.
The majority of Lilly’s time in ‘the deadlands’ is spent as a period of magical, wide-eyed wandering/wondering, with a slightly eerie, unnatural feel. Semi-supernatural figures inhabit a bleak landscape where scenery is represented by old books that fall apart at a moment’s notice. The problem is just how much unchanging underworld wandering you can take – your unchanging underworld wandering threshold, if you will. With such an environment, large sections of ‘Lilly Through The Dark’ are rather one-note, and (as Carroll’s Dormouse might say) much of a muchness. If only the pace were to be tightened, so that the cast aren’t hanging around so much or talking so slowly, this setting could be much more effective. The deadlands would also benefit from a touch more variety of event – more moments like those between the gallows humour double-act (two hilarious men hanging from gibbets and cracking jokes), for example – and emotion, to avoid the numbing sadness over the piece. The almost constant mandolin playing in the corner could also be livened up a bit, as it is usually atmospheric but too calming at times.
Writer and director Edward Wren is the man on mandolin, and haunts the side of the stage with his face as white as all the other performers – they’re grotesques appointed as storytellers by the moon. This is a style that The River People have spent years perfecting, and they’re really quite good at it. They specialise in poetic story telling, relating macabre tales – usually involving hard done to children – with grim enthusiasm, and their style is undeniably popular.
Of the grotesques, Joe Bone is the one to watch. He plays RottenPockets, a sort of ferryman of the underworld with a gorgeously guttural voice. He sings with a light, delicate touch, and bounds around the stage all twisted up and snarling. That he stars in a one-man show earlier in the day – ‘Bane’, over at the Pleasance Dome – makes his achievement, effort and energy even more impressive.
‘Lilly Through The Dark’ is probably what would happen if Tim Burton designed a cross-over between ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ and ‘The Amber Spyglass’ – I like to think The River People would take that as a compliment.