The Unicorn could teach all of us, especially the struggling London fringe, a thing or two. Lest we forget, it was set up just post-war as a touring operation. Now, however, in its airy multi-space venue in the shadow of the Shard it proves that young people’s theatre is not all five cardboard boxes in a rusting van. The venue is uncluttered, unfussy, and the staff all entirely committed. And just look at their list of supporters and production partners. It may not be as long as some West End stage, but it’s seriously heavyweight.
There is no hint of patronising a young audience. Just this winter, in amongst shows specially created for audiences from 18 months upwards, it has received Adler and Gibb from the Royal Court and two pieces from Dance Umbrella. It also produced a five-week run of Holger Schoder’s important and clever My Mother Medea.
In the Hunting Lodge we have a 60-minute sequel to Cinderella, aimed at audiences of 11+, but knowing enough for older teenagers. Originating in Belgium, it’s translated with huge success by director Purni Morell, full of great theatrical moments, and astute references to the original. It could be seen as musing lightly on the nature of real love and personal worth. The online blurb talks about tilting at the cult of celebrity. The play is at its best, however, when it shows repeatedly how our obsession with our own anxieties can literally stop us recognising those around us for who or what they are.
The production is tucked into the Clore auditorium, in a 90-seater (or so) traverse setting, which should leave plenty of room for a three-hander. Simone Romaniuk’s design is delicious. It evokes as much Rodney Acland, or an impressionistic Richard III , all ruched red party debris, strewn between desiccated creepers woven through chains. It’s all of piece with the atmosphere of the whole, even if its more clever features very occasionally get in the way a fraction.
Lesser hands might have made the script seem slight; it’s deceptively simple, with quite a lot of air between the lines. Fortunately, however, it gets the rigourous emotional and physical precision it needs. We simply don’t mind that one character is silent and alone on the stage for the first few minutes. We know all about his world before he speaks. A particular high point was the simple act of one person returning a shoe to another, in the presence of her anxious rival. Perfect silence, and no doubt at all about the stakes at the moment, what each person wanted – and how mightily the gesture was doomed to be misinterpreted.
Philip Arditti erases all memory of him as the murderous Uday Hussain. His Prince is a middle-aged teenager, struggling anxiously with his relations with women, unconscious of his own happiness as it grows.
If you haven’t got a teenager with you, you might find the denouement a bit sudden, but the audience at whom it was aimed (especially in a space like the Unicorn) seemed to get in spades.