Devised by Haste Theatre
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
Tim Burton is well known for his dark eccentric fantasy films, but in 1997 he also produced a book in a similar vein, The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy & Other Stories. The title story, written in verse, is the inspiration for Haste Theatre’s Oyster Boy.
The story is a simple allegory about the importance of love and acceptance. Jim is an Italian ice cream seller on Coney Island, he meets Alice, saves her from a watery grave, they fall in love and marry. Their happiness is complete when, after an unusually large meal of oysters, they discover Alice is pregnant. But their son, Sam, is born with a head the shape of an oyster shell. While the proud parents love him regardless, other members of the community are not so accepting of what they perceive as a monster.
This is a magical production. Haste Theatre specialise in physical theatre and they use their skills superbly in Oyster Boy. An empty stage is transformed into the various locations through the use of lengths of material and simple props (all carried on stage in small picnic baskets) to produce tables, backdrops and the sea – the one place Sam feels at home. Apart from Jim (Valeria Compagnoni) and Alice (Lexie McDougall), the cast members play multiple rôles but are most notable as a chorus of four as they move the story along through song and movement. The individual characters are brought to life through over the top characterisations and simple costume amendments – for example, the children, Molly and Polly are brought to excited, childlike life by Tamara Saffir and Jesse Dupré when they meet Sam and, despite their mother’s reservations, become firm friends with him.
The beauty is realised through the artistry of the movement and puppetry. Sam is a pretty basic puppet but we immediately believe in him – and his head. One sequence, in which he windsurfs, brought spontaneous empathetic ‘Oohs’ and ‘Aahs’ from this audience and a sequence in which he swims underwater is incredibly well done.
But Jim and Alice have a decision to make about their son’s future. This is the one segment where there is a slight lack of clarity – or maybe the ambiguity is deliberate – as we are not totally certain whether the ending is a happy or sad one for the various parties.
Utterly delightful, beautiful and childlike, Oyster Boy stays faithful to Burton’s vision: it tugs at the heartstrings and leads us in a clever and charming way to question our own attitudes to those who are different. It tours until at least May and is well worth netting.
Reviewed on 24 March 2017 and on tour | Image: Contributed