Written by Diana Wynne Jones, designed by Davy and Kristin McGuire, and featuring ethereal narration from none other than Stephen Fry, Howl’s Moving Castle is a mysterious tale of a young girl who angers a witch and finds herself transformed into an old woman, set for adventure amidst the wonderfully absurd world of the wizard Howl and his incredible living castle.
As I mentioned in my review of 13, playwrights influenced by cinema are on the rise, and this production at the Southwark Playhouse combines live action with projection in a way that could easily be seen on the big screen. However, the fact that the magic of film is brought right in front of your nose makes it an innovative and creative piece. The set is a blank white paper cutout of the castle, providing a 3D model of the building as well as a blank space for the numerous projections. Throughout the play we see the interior of the castle, strange unknown lands, the castle flying through the clouds or rushing past a town. Although it took a little time to warm to the moving images and get used to the shifting background, it proved to be a success at moving the story forward (if not quite literally).
Similarly, voice over was used to provide the narration by the castle itself (Stephen Fry), and the fire demon Calcifer (James Wilkes), who skipped around the stage as a projected plume of flame or a flickering candle within the audience. The actors on stage did not disappoint either – the eccentric Howl was brought to bursting life by Daniel Ings, reminding one of a strange Jack Sparrow/Dr Who hybrid. Complete with top hat and cane, he is the epitome of British fantasy humour. Susan Sheridan plays the bewitched Sophie in her aging body with real sparkle and vivacity, making it clear she is a young woman under a terrible curse. The witch (Kristin McGuire) was a little too pantomime for my liking, appearing more overbearing than dominating. Nevertheless this worked against the backdrop of what I would consider a fairytale for adults, with plenty of innuendo and mischievous laughs.
It could be argued that the performance could have done with a more defined target audience – either increase the melodrama and make it for kids, or darken the characters to shift it entirely for an older audience. Yet still I was completely enthralled by such a unique form of theatre, something I hope to see a lot more of in the future, and something I would recommend to theatre-goers and aspiring directors to consider.