Lionboy by Zizou Corder (the pen name of Louisa Young and her daughter Isabel) is the tale of Charlie Ashanti, the son of two famous scientists working on a cure for asthma who mysteriously go missing. The story is set in the near future when most of the world's oil has been used up, travel by car is the preserve of the wealthy and planes have given way to boats. Large corporations are immensely powerful and the Corporacy, a pharmaceuticals giant, is the largest and most powerful of them all. Charlie is a normal 11 year old Londoner in all aspects apart from one; he can talk to cats and it's the neighbourhood moggies who set him on his continent-crossing quest to find his parents.
The play opens with the characters introducing themselves and their story, something I found endearing. The actors narrate with great energy and charisma; Adetomiwa Edun is a likeable and resourceful Charlie, transforming himself through effortless physicality into the cats and lions he converses with, while Femi Elufowoju is mesmerising as the lion-trainer Maccumo. Robert Gilbert portrays just the right level of menace as Charlie's pursuer Rafi and great moments of comic support are provided by the rest of the cast. The intriguing set is based around a large hanging disc which tilts to suggest moonscapes or the African sun, as well as transforming into the backcloth for shadow-puppetry or the sewers of the Corporacy headquarters.
There's an awful lot to like about this production; the showmanship of the circus and all its characters is a triumph, as is the flight of Charlie and the lions in a hot air balloon to Africa. The percussive sound is evocative throughout and there's enough technical wizardry to keep all the family happy, not to mention the inventive use of commonplace objects such as aluminium ladders to suggest the towering strength of the Corporacy or wet rubber tubing as slippery eels. The occasional splattering of the front row is amusing for those of us not sitting there (and for the actors too, one suspects). But there's a lot of story to squeeze in and some moments inevitably feel compacted. The portrayal of quite complex arguments as a boxing match in the Corporacy headquarters in the second half works less well and left us confused as to the sort of audience participation we were being asked for. And while Complicite's style is very much one of narration, I occasionally felt there could have been a little less of it and a little more dialogue and direct interaction between the characters.
As with many of Complicite's productions, this show has had a long gestation, being over three years in the devising, so the sense of a rushed ending is not likely to be through lack of consideration but because of the need for simplification. If I'd lived and loved the Lionboy trilogy as a child, I might not be entirely happy with what was left out in this adaptation. As a piece of theatre, however, this was every bit as engaging and inventive as I'd hoped.
PS The programme is lovely too!
We saw Lionboy courtesy of those lovely folk at the Bristol Old Vic, it continues its run at the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse, Oxford Playhouse, Wales Millenium Centre and Warwick Arts Centre - check Complicite's website for dates.