Giant snores reverberate across Westacre Theatre’s wide stage as we settle down for Andy Naylor’s bespoke adaptation of The Selfish Giant, Oscar Wilde’s heartfelt fairytale about selfishness, loneliness and love. Through a translucent screen showing a projection of the Giant’s castle, we can just catch tantalising glimpses of his beautiful garden beyond as the story begins; and as the action unfolds, whether we can, or cannot, see into his garden becomes the focus of every scene, brilliantly capturing the essence of this story. The selfish Giant banishes children from his garden, only to find its beauty blasted by endless winter without their happiness at play. When the children eventually creep back in through a hole in the Giant’s garden wall, Spring tiptoes back to revive the flowers and trees: and one sad little boy with an astonishing cosmic secret will thaw the Giant’s frozen heart forever. Like the other fairytales Oscar Wilde wrote for his children, this story is lyrically beautiful and powerfully moving: tissues are definitely required. Naylor’s adaptation begins in the very simplest language, and is often markedly repetitive, making it suitable for even very young children, but Naylor moves gradually closer to the rhythm and quality of Wilde’s original words as he reaches its emotional, and deeply spiritual, climax.
Naylor uses live, charismatic narration by Issy Huckle, respendent in velvet at one corner of the stage as she reads the story aloud, alongside recorded or miked-up voices for his largely puppet cast. This creates a demanding technical challenge in terms of timing, because live puppetry on stage by Dot Williams Eley, Chloe Geary and Katherine Shaw, as well as Ross Chandler’s silent masked performance as the Giant (voiced by Andy Naylor) has to all coordinate perfectly with the script, as well as Charlie Williams’ atmospheric score, and Andy Naylor’s animated projections; but despite all these potential pitfalls, the piece generally flows with magical smoothness. The combination of real and artificial voices works surprisingly well, creating a world of several layers which allows us to follow both the plot and its profound subtext. Best of all, pretty much everyone, even the Cornish Ogre’s time-defying clock (Stephen Rimmer), gets to sing. Charlie Williams’ songs are naively simple, but the rest of his score feels more sophisticated, combining piano, double bass, cello, viola, tuba and flute to produce moments of elegant pathos, anxious tension or warm release as the plot requires.
Fabulous puppets by Louise Matthews and Chris Hadfield make the garden’s invasion by the forces of Winter an especial treat: golden-faced Snow floats her huge hooded fleece cloak over the grass, while Jack Frost is a dancing column of sparkles, his glittering face arrayed with twisting icicles, and Hail comes tap-dancing in a sharp white suit. The children are dressed in distinctly Victorian clothes, while the two chatty and vainglorious Flowers are simply made in brightly coloured fabric. The Children and Flowers are voiced with skill by a group of children, Dot Williams Eley, Pearl Williams Eley, Nancy Williams Eley, Kitty Conduit Smith and Betsy Conduit Smith; two Peach Trees and various Seasons are voiced evocatively by Issy Huckle and Charlie Williams, and we also have a couple of disapproving village neighbours with Yorkshire accents. The attention to detail across the production is particularly pleasing, with quirky and clever touches all over the design: the Cornish Ogre has not a cuckoo clock but a seagull clock; the Giant’s alarm clock chime is in fact Big Ben.
The culmination of the tale is searingly, painfully beautiful, as the Giant is aghast to see a vision of the Christ Child, his feet and hands red “with the wounds of love,” who takes the dying Giant’s soul away to the garden of Paradise, while his body becomes part of the earthly garden he has learnt at last to share, because, in Naylor’s simple rendering, “sharing makes your share expand.” So many of Oscar Wilde’s fairytales carry this passionate moral imperative towards goodness, by expressing the human price of selfishness – a message not just for Christmas, but for life.
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