Edinburgh Fringe 2018
William and the Outlaws have set up a theatre in The Old Barn and announce that they will be presenting their adventure. They’re acting out all the characters, they’ve made all the props and of course Violet Elizabeth wants to play too…
The invincible William Brown considers he is jolly well equal to solving most of life’s trickier problems, although devising a plan to get the elder brothers of the Outlaws married off might be a considerable challenge… Shedload Theatre presents a love letter to Richmal Crompton’s classic characters in a fresh and dynamic adaptation. Fusing live storytelling, screaming and screaming, music, knights of the square table, Foley sound effects, the Outlaws trademark gusto and all the best intentions.
I can’t really say I was brought up as a fan of Richmal Crompton’s ‘Just William’ books, although they’re set close to where I grew up. I wasn’t naughty enough to identify with the eponymous character and I was too young or too old to enjoy the TV series in the 1970s and 1990s. However, by spending a childhood in the woods I felt more of a connection with William Brown than I ever did to the two-dimensional creations of Enid Blyton. At least he is a real character, albeit archaic at this stage.
I had a little trepidation booking a ticket to see ‘Just William’s Luck’. I have seen the original 1940s film and I was concerned this might be an enthusiastic yet embarrassing production by one of the less capable youth groups.
You might question the suitability of performing this juvenile romp in one of Cowgate’s Underbelly spaces, given that they are generally musty vaults. However, I think Shedload Theatre chose well. The play is set in The Outlaws den, so the environment enhances the experience. The set dressings are moderate, but clearly professionally constructed. Like the excellent similar-but-not-matching costumes, dribbles of paint over everything works wonderfully well at suggesting an untidy mess. There are crates, a cart and a chaise. None have escaped the paintbrush.
I am surprised on the day I saw it that the venue was only approaching half-full. The main reason for my surprise is that ‘Just William’s Luck’ is right at the top of the 40-odd shows I saw this year. It is a delight from beginning to end. Curious to note that I don’t think I saw ANY children in the audience. It’s clearly suitable and intended for them but this was in many ways an hour of adult escapism and regression.
The comic start to the play, a pseudo-horror wailing bass lament descending into atonal noise with falsetto screaming, drops you into the right space for what’s to follow. Very soon after that the boys (let’s say youngish adults in truth) have formed an equine scenario with King Arthur. It’s a junkyard War Horse and, in spite of the protestations that it’s not a very good horse, it is. Actually.
There is something about the way these actors work that makes watching this play such a joy. None of them are faking shrill pre-adolescent voices. They’re using their own, but with the wonder and conviction of childhood. I can’t tell you how much more comfortable this makes the production. Every single one of the five cast act with total absorption. They are slick, animated, clear and committed. It is obvious they have been performing it for some time, but there is not a trace of boredom or exhaustion evident. What IS clear is that they are having as much fun as we are. An occasional breakdown in the flow (props, not the cast) leads to a moment of the players and the audience being one in amusement. If it’s deliberate, it doesn’t show.
It is a play within a play, and we are told this from the outset. The boys act out the story for us. The Gnights Of The Square Table are having a meeting to market their agency to ‘rite rongs’. Ginger (Thomas Guttridge) arrives late at The Outlaws den on his brother’s bike – he’s been given it because his brother is getting married and has no use for it. This sends William’s (Jonathan Massey, also co-author) warped logic to conclude that if he can get his own brother married off, he will get a bike too. As will the rest of the gang.
The boys guide us through the story by taking on the roles of everyone else. Douglas (Davey Lias) tends to lead the brief musical interludes which always enhance and never intrude on the play (ukulele and banging on the furnishings being the accompaniment). At times, when playing adults, the cast use the ridiculous conceit of sitting on each other’s shoulders under a huge raincoat, or making the longest, hairiest-legged actress in the world (she must be at least ten feet tall) by having her reclining across the stage, made of two of the cast partially secreted by a blanket. It’s something you could see in a comic, but in real life it’s very Monty Python – and it’s hilarious. All the cast are excellent, but (subjectively) Greg Arundell as Henry just has the edge. To be fair to the others, his small frame and large glasses do give him an advantage. He gives off an air of being a boisterous Penfold from ‘Dangermouse’. Even his voice has similarities.
The arrival of Violet Elizabeth (Louise Waller) throws everything into disarray and outshines anything that tries to compete. She is a statement for feminism. Six years old, she is brighter than any of the boys and quickly takes control. It’s a credit to the writing that in this version she irritates the boys rather than there being genuine animosity. And she IS irritating – because she’s always right, and she knows it. This William may exist in some vague halcyon 1950s, but the attitudes shown here – albeit safely – conform more to our modern expectations.
Without giving too much away, there is some silly puppetry with large papier-mâché ‘are-they-good-or-are-they-bad’ figures playing the villains and, unsurprisingly, everything works out in the end.
I always tend to judge a play on how many times I yawn and how often I look at my watch. I didn’t yawn once. I DID look at my watch. That, however, was because I didn’t want the performance to end and wondered how much longer I had left to enjoy.
This piece is perfect for the Fringe. Punchy, contained, professional and thoroughly enjoyable. I found myself rather envious. It is a faultless example of family entertainment.