Writers/Devisers: Jesse Meadows, Edythe Woolley, James Newton, Kerry Lovell, Hanora Kamen
Directors: Tom Brennan, Helena Middleton
Reviewer: Lucy Corley
Publicity images for The Bike Shed Theatre’s Christmas show promise a quirky, comic and heart-warming evening and, on the whole, Eloise and the Curse of the Golden Whisk delivers this.
Devised by the cast, the play has the local, welcoming feel of a pantomime but is much more personal to Exeter, including events that really happened in the city in 1944, and landmarks like Parliament Square and the underground passages.
This is The Wardrobe Ensemble’s third Christmas show in collaboration with The Bike Shed and proves a winner with many audience members. Fleeing from Nazi-occupied France in 1944, Eloise (Jesse Meadows) takes refuge in the war-damaged restaurant Arthur’s Kitchen. Arthur himself (a sweetly bumbling and quintessentially British performance from James Newton) has had his spirit shaken by war and loss, but is persuaded to employ Eloise as his chef. Together they begin to revive the restaurant’s fortunes, until Eloise discovers a golden whisk that won’t let her out of its spell…
The rambunctious cast charges about the stage, switching between parts at a moment’s notice. Kerry Lovell particularly shines as the charismatic, foxy Devonian villain, Auntie Bet. There are some cheery original songs (watch out for the tribute to Britain and queueing) and the full soundtrack is produced live using mics, instruments and reverb pedals, including lovely touches like the hiss of a frying pan when Eloise throws onions in.
The cast’s exuberance frequently delights the audience and raises laughs; however it also threatens to stifle the show with its own creative enthusiasm, especially in the first half. The cast has some fantastic ideas – a Morecambe &Wise-inspired kitchen sequence, and Grandma Buggins’ double life as pilot, witch and ninja are just a couple of the best – but trying to cram everything in makes the show frenetic and sometimes difficult to follow, particularly for some of its younger audience members.
The second half has some calmer moments, and this more varied pace and tone pays dividends in allowing the audience to immerse itself in the story of this wartime fairy tale, rather than being distracted by the earlier circus of (often funny) extra characters and additional plot points. In this half, Eloise’s bravely optimistic outlook on her cursed situation has more space to shine through.
Interestingly, The Wardrobe Ensemble opts for a traverse stage layout, with the audience on either side of the rectangular playing space. This creates a faintly claustrophobic stage which works well for locations like a hectic market place or underground tunnel, but also limits how much sense of place can be created, as there is little room for scenery. The cast has no trouble, though, in engaging with audience members on both sides, and the children present are delighted by the more immersive moments such as restaurant waiters taking their orders.
The Bike Shed’s advice that the show is suitable for children aged seven and up is definitely sensible – darker moments such as air raids and nightmares are likely to upset children any younger than this. That said, Eloise’s courage in confronting her blackest memories is what makes this show real – it has far more depth of plot and character than any Christmas pantomime.
For families this Christmas, Eloise and the Curse of the Golden Whisk makes a refreshingly contemporary alternative to panto. There are areas where it overstretches itself, perhaps in trying to appeal to what the company believes children want to see, but it is the quieter, more emotional moments that give the show its sparkle.
Runs until Saturday 9 January 2016 | Image: Contributed