Oscar Wilde, adapted by Linnie Reedman, music and lyrics by Joe Evans
Ruby in the Dust
King's Head Theatre, London
This play with songs frames Oscar Wilde’s story as though it is being told to by the author to a group of sophisticated friends (among them a Mr Gray) who have just heard him recounting his tale of The Birthday of the Infanta and ask for more.
At first with the song of a nightingale, one thinks it is going to be an opera but it is really a play with music. It is a moral tale that tells of a Starchild, a baby boy who seems to have fallen from the sky. A woodcutter finds him, takes him home and rears him.
The baby grows into a beautiful but terrible child who bullies the other children in the family, is cruel to the animals in the forest and thinks that the family that has given him their love are beneath him. “Nobody tells a Starchild what to do," the arrogant boy boasts. When he goes off to find a life that he thinks more fitting, he gets his comeuppance and has to rely on those he was cruel to to help him.
Like Dorian Gray, written at much the same time as this story, badness brings a change in appearance, but to the living child in this case not a painting and the ending brings a very different kind of resolution.
It is simply but charmingly told, with drawn projections forming the main part of Christopher Home’s setting and beautiful costumes of feathers and fur, black lace and gold fabric by Belle Mundi. The action is sometimes carried through the audience and even breaks into dance. Director Linnie Reedman gets her un-named cast to exhibit just enough of each animal’s characteristics to recognize an earth-digging mole, a hare, an owl and a peacock—or actually a peahen, for the peahen’s dowdy appearance now is because the boy plucked out her feathers.
The songs are delightful and very varied in style. They are accompanied by their composer on piano, with violin (Claire-Monique Martin), clarinet (Naomi Bullock) and accordion (Will Barrett). Unfortunately some of the vocal lines are set too high to be properly comprehensible and singers are sometimes overpowered by the instruments. Putting that right and some clearer consonants will make the story much easier to follow.
James Lloyd Pegg as the off-stage voice of the sorcerer sets an excellent example to the others. Perhaps the nightingale at the start of the story is not singing words at all, in which case the director might give more indication that this is meant to be a bird, not a young woman.
Peta Cornish (who also plays Mr Gray), is at first charmingly petulant as the naughty Starchild, the evil, just unthinking naughtiness, but I took her to be playing a girl until, with surprise, I heard the word boy used clearly. A piping voice may fit a young male, but boys just move a bit differently.
Alyssa Noble is the Owl and a scurrying Hare. Naomi Bullock is the Peahen and a Queen who disguises herself as a beggar woman. Will Barrett plays Wilde, who tells the story, and a King who disguises himself as a leper and has some fun with the audience. Claire-Monique Martin is the scurry mole and the Woodcutter’s wife as well as the trillingly-sung Nightingale. Barnaby Brookman and Tristan Pegg are Woodcutters and soldiers. This is a company of actors who are also singers and instrumentalists.
Playing at the rather unusual time of 11:30 in the morning, this would make a very pleasant precursor to lunch if you live or are eating in Islington.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton