Writer: Jemma Kennedy
Adaptor: Sally Gardner
Director: Jesse Jones
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
Sally Gardner’s novel for children Maggot Moon was published to great acclaim in 2012, winning both the Costa Children’s Book Award and the Carnegie Medal. Its central hero is Standish, a 15-year-old dyslexic boy whose reading disorder causes him to be bullied by fellow pupils and teachers alike.
Only his best friend Hector gets him, it seems – but Hector has disappeared. For in this alternative world of the 1950s, Standish and Hector live in the Motherland, a fascist regime to whom one must acquiesce or face the harshest punishment.
Jemma Kennedy’s stage adaptation for the Unicorn takes Gardner’s first-person narrative and turns it into a tour-de-force monologue for James Newton’s Standish. Newton relishes Standish’s unique take on the world, his lines freely mixing malapropisms and metaphor in such a manner that we are as freely ensconced into his world as readers of the book would be.
Standish’s world is enhanced by Lucy Sierra’s set, designed to look like the innards of an old cathode ray television, inside which Akhila Krishnan’s video projections help us shift between the boy’s flights of fancy and the darker, sinister encounters with the Motherland’s oppressive forces.
The former benefit from projections of drawings and flipbooks made, and performed live, by James Day’s Hector. They contrast well with the blacks and pin-sharp lines of white – reminiscent of an old television as it powers down – as Standish encounters the sinister man in the leather-coated officer and the Greenflies, the Motherland’s army officers.
As Standish finds himself drawn into the world, the mystery of the building behind his house which may hold the key to the Motherland’s biggest lie, and the mystery of why his Grandfather has an astronaut hidden in the cellar, Kennedy’s script flits between levity and some astonishingly realised scenes of brutality. There’s nothing visually shown – it’s all in Newton’s performance and monologue delivery, which makes some scenes all the more upsetting.
Following the template Gardner set in her original work, Kennedy introduces themes of propaganda, of constant surveillance, of the human spirit’s unfailing inability to be quashed forever. Standish and Hector’s dreams of 1950s Americana – the mythical land of “Croca Cola”, where everybody drives ice cream-coloured Cadillacs and the sun shines in Technicolor – is a proxy for the power of dreaming and imagination in the harshest of circumstances.
It all adds up to a captivating hour of theatre. Newton’s command of the stage dominates for much of it, but when Day joins him as Standish and Hector are reunited, the bond of friendship between two boys caught up in the horrors of such an oppressive regime shines through.
While this may be an adaptation of a book for children, and is playing at the Unicorn, one of London’s principal homes of children’s theatre, this is one of the most powerful, most compelling pieces of theatre for audiences of any age this year. Any adult who fails to catch this superlative show will be missing out.
Continues until 27 October 2019 | Image: Contributed