The London Eye Mystery
Adapted from the book by Siobhan Dowd by Carl Miller
This play opens with a lad in school uniform telling the audience he doesn't like theatre and why: (1) because there are crowds and he doesn't like crowds; (2) because people pretend to be other people and that's like lying and (3) because it's often metaphorical - you talk about one thing as though its something else and he finds it sometimes difficult to know what people mean. It's a pretty risky opening for an audience of children who probably don't have much, if any experience of theatre going. But Ted, it seems, does like two plays: Shakespeare's The Tempest (the relevance of which you find out later) and this one.
This schoolboy is Ted who's twelve and has a problem, though it is never spelled out: he suffers from what I take to be Asperger syndrome. That makes it difficult for him to handle social situations and pick up on people's body language. Those with it often focus on very restricted interests and go on about them. Ted is fascinated by weather forecasting but he is also obsessive about a mine of other information which he is far too eager to share.
This doesn't make him the easiest character to warm to and John Cockerill plays him with appropriate awkwardness both vocally and physically, hands often half clenched, an anxious edge to his voice, emotional and tense. He keeps endlessly on about the weather. At school they call him a neek - that's a cross between a nerd and a geek. Because he starts of by telling everyone this is his story this sort of puts you on his side, even if you don't initially like him.
Ted, himself may be put off by metaphor but there is a lot about the character's problems that any child who is an outsider, finds others don't understand his obsessions or has difficulty in relating to other people, will be able to identify with.
Visiting Aunt Gloria (Samantha Adams) with her son Salim (Liame Lane) and later her ex-husband Raschid (Ery Nzaramba) provide a situation that some other children may find all too familiar. As well as being split between his parents Salim is faced with being uprooted to America and being separated from his best friend Marcus (Nzaraba) back in Manchester.
Ted's parents (Julie Hewlett and Rupert Wickham) and his elder sister Kat (Amaka Okafor) provide a much more secure background but not one without its own arguments and rows.
Against this domestic background is set the mystery of Salim's sudden disappearance when he goes for a trip on the London Eye. His cousins watch him go on but he they never see him come off it. Ted and Kat set out to discover what has happened. The mystery is a bit like an Agatha Christie, not one where you work out the solution with the characters. You have to wait until it's solved to see how the pieces fit together. It is not the deductive challenge that holds this play together but waiting to see what happens, with a snatch of song, some rushing around in rippling light as scene moves into scene and even a chase in best Hollywood gangster fashion.
I wonder how many of the youngsters I saw it with would have picked up on the extracts from Shakespeare's Tempest which were slipped occasionally, played out by Salim and what turns out to be Marcus, in some sort of parallel world or time zone. They are a confusing addition, though in fact they represent a piece of vital, if unknown, evidence.
I thought it took a long time for the mystery part of the story to get going but this didn't seem to worry the rest of the audience. They reacted very strongly when Gloria and Marcus kissed so it's not surprising that there was an even bigger reaction to a boy on boy kiss later between Salem and Marcus (even though the later was playing a camply feminine Miranda in a long blonde wig). Theirs is a 'special friend' relationship formed at an all-boy school and if any implicit hint of homosexuality is intended it is unexplored. Though the audience reaction suggests that it might not have been entirely missed it probably would not register with the younger children at whom this play is aimed.
Director Rosamunde Hutt keeps her production always busy so that there is plenty to hold the audience's attention and Anna Fleischie's design combines a suggestion of tower blocks and South Bank brutalism with domestic spaces with projections, skyline silhouettes and some ropes stretched out above the auditorium that recall the suspension of the walkways of Hungerford Bridge. It is a production that, while strongly rooted in very positive characterisations from its hard-working cast (there are some remarkably quick changes when actors are doubling others roles) avoids the strictly literal in its presentation making it easier for it to embrace the mysteriousness of some elements of its telling.
At the Unicorn Theatre until 18th April
Reviewer: Howard Loxton