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Lionboy

From the novels by Zizou Corder, adapted by Marcelo Do Santos with Annabel Arden, Louisa Young, Mike Kenny and the Company
Complicite
Oxford Playhouse

Adetomiwa Edun as Charlie Ashanti Credit: Complicite
Victoria Gould as Madame Barbue Credit: Complicite
Lisa Kerr as Pirouette Credit: Complicite

Lionboy, Complicite’s first venture into theatre for young adults and families now on tour across the UK, is a roaring success.

The tale—based on the Lionboy novels by Zizou Corder—centres on Charlie Ashanti, a boy who has become genetically modified so that he is able to understand the language spoken by all cats. Complicite’s smart and playful adaptation soon sends him off on a quest to save his scientist parents from the evil Corporacy. By modifying the genetic code of cats as a means of transmitting asthma and other illnesses to humans, the Corporacy can provide a lucrative market for their medications made necessary by the very sicknesses caused by the evil corporation.

Like the best shows targeted to families, this production moves quickly along its narrative path in ways suitable both for young viewers and for their parents along for the ride. Within minutes, Charlie is advised to run away by the feral cats in his neighbourhood and finds himself on a circus ship sailing to its next show, the means of transport to his distressed parents. There on the ship, he finds six lions that ask him to rescue them, a whole new task that greatly increases the difficulties of Charlie’s restoration of his family.

The plot has a rich moral complexity. In one moment, the young people in the audience are told not to lie; not two minutes later, they witness a whopper of a fib. Life, they’re told, is complex, with a lie sometimes the right choice. Promises, however, we’re told, are meant to be kept, and so they are by the characters we know to be morally upright.

The acting of the ensemble is always compelling, especially when Adetomiwa Edun moves back and forth between simultaneously performing both Charlie and the crouching homesick lions of the circus time and again. Clive Mendus’s Sergei, one of the genetically modified cats, is fun to watch as he helps Charlie on the quest to save his lost parents, and Victoria Gould is properly chilling as the villain of the piece.

Like all of Complicite’s shows, this production makes a great use of both technology and of theatricality; nothing in the show’s aesthetic world is out of place under Annabel Arden’s direction, which ranges from the highly comic to the profound. Sometimes it's both at the same moment as when the Chief Executive and Charlie battle out the ethical issues raised by the Corporacy's profiteering in a boxing match complete with blue and red gloves.

On the surface a raucous event including Olympic-style score cards in matching colours and audience participation, the propositions being debated involved serious stuff such as whether or not a corporation needs to take care of its employees and the fate of the animals who are the subjects of the Corporacy's experiments and of Charlie's parents.

The gorgeous set (an entire circus ring on stage), lights, sound design and costumes of the production easily create a variety of settings. Everything from Charlie’s empty house to a veldt populated by lions created by warm tones and the shadows of the actors projected on a scrim made of a flexible material to the world headquarters of the Corporacy (four steel ladders lit a sickly green) is delivered in ways that both serve the narrative and create an inventive world full of the wonder both of the Lionboy trilogy and of young adults.

Don’t miss this production's UK tour. It’s well worth travelling for it.

Reviewer: Keith Dorwick