My first post of the New Year is also a rather sad one – saying farewell to the wonderful London Bridge venue that has been home to the Southwark Playhouse for the past 6 years, and had quickly become my favourite London venue. So it was with a somewhat heavy heart that I stepped through its doors for one last time to see Philip Ridley’s new, family friendly, Feathers In The Snow. And yet almost as soon as I’d sat myself down, were my spirits lifted and my woes forgotten by the enchanting, insightful, and engaging play; an excellent production to see out their time in the tunnels.
In my mind, Philip Ridley is the dark writer of Mercury Fur, a play that I found fascinating, and yet the most disturbing piece of theatre I’ve ever witnessed – though that hasn’t stopped me seeing it a second time. So when I heard he was not only giving Southwark Playhouse a children’s play, but he was also a noted children’s author, I was rather taken aback, and wondered how someone who portrays the worst of humanity can provide something suitable for children. I was, of course, impressed and amazed at what he created – the main auditorium was two-thirds 4foot tall, buzzing, excited, and making sure everyone around them felt that same infectious anticipation that can be all too lost in ‘traditional’ bourgeois theatre. What Ridley managed to do, was make his adults revert to giggling kids, whilst once in a while making poignant comments about the world around us that would (thankfully) go above the heads of many of the spectators. Feathers in the Snow spans across 500 years, and is a magical tale of a mysterious bird that unlocks a girls’ imagination and heart, warring kingdoms, various talking animals, and ultimately a lesson in individuality and the ability to think for yourself.
The cast, larger than any I’ve seen at this particular theatre, were all incredibly strong – with unexpected songs intertwined throughout the play, including some impressively composed harmonies, meant that every actor remained involved. Switching characters, changing costumes, altering bodylanguage, and putting on new accents is all a part of the great multi-roling art that is in so many plays, and this was no exception. And as children are not easily fooled, care was taken to remind the younger patrons that each t-shirt meant a new character, someone different to the story. This constant awareness of his audience shows just how skilled Ridley is as a playwright and storyteller.
Of the cast, those I noted particularly were Adam Venus who graced the stage in roles varying from an ‘old wife’, to the mystical BlazerBird, to a ‘legless’ (literally) drunkard-come-wizard. Each time he returned to the stage anew, it was like watching someone completely different and individual, with no echoes of past characters to trace. Craig Vye and Cerith Flinn (Jared/TwoTwo, and builder/old wife/Adam respectively) had a remarkable dynamic both in their own scenes but also when interacting with each other. Flinn in particular, who seemed to have more parts than I could remember, moved seamlessly from one to the other with ease and confidence.
Directed by David Mercatali, who had collaborated with Ridley in the hugely successful Tender Napalm, this production was a brilliant exploration of imagination and magic, with some rather sinister hidden messages which are characteristic of Ridley’s writing. Although I feel it is a great loss to our theatre world to see the London Bridge venue go, they couldn’t have chosen anything better with which to leave. It will be along four months without them, but keep your eyes peeled for the launch of their new home, the warehouse 77-85 Newington Causeway, in April this year. I have no doubts with a new space will come even more exciting new theatre.