Lionboy fails to find its Roar

Lionboy by Complicite, Adetomiaw Edun as Charlie Ashanti, photo: Mark Douet
Lionboy by Complicite, Adetomiaw Edun as Charlie Ashanti, photo: Mark Douet
Lionboy by Complicite, Adetomiaw Edun as Charlie Ashanti, photo: Mark Douet

Storytelling theatre lends itself to engaging a childlike imagination and as Complicite attempts the giant task of adapting the trilogy of Lionboy novels by Zizou Corder for the stage, achieving the balance between the childlike and the childish becomes evidently tricky. Their first full-length production for children and families (though ostensibly enjoyable for adults too), is set in a future time ravaged by pollution and it tells the story of a boy who can ‘speak cat’, Charlie Ashanti (Adetomiwa Edun).

It is an adventure that leads us from his escape route from home, avoiding the baddies who abducted his parents, and finding help from all manner of feline friends on his way. He is clean, upright and determined, and we are always made to understand he is always doing the right thing. The school children present in the audience enthusiastically cheered along to the moralistic, metaphorical boxing match between Charlie and the Corporacy. There’s a clear moral impetus to the story, of what is right (the innocent child) and what is wrong (the money-grabbing corporation).

From each actor presenting them self using their real name, a well-used theatrical trope, as helping to the tell the story of Charlie, Lionboy was set up to be a collaborative actor-audience show. Complicite beg their audience to imagine, from the doubling-up roles, to the bodily motif the actors make used to embody a cat character and a red helium ‘hot air’ balloon ‘floating’ up a see-through string into the gods, which takes Charlie and his lions to Africa.

But the big questions are left unanswered. The one lion that Charlie worries about, who walks alongside him instead of racing off into the savannah to conveniently be reunited with long-lost family, as the others do, has been bred in captivity. We are left with the concern that this young lion, in spite of Charlie’s encouragement, really has few skills to survive. Environmental questions, not just about circuses, but the possibilities of breeding animals for the gains of pharmaceutical companies and the unruly power of large corporations, are raised but left hanging like the red balloon which disappointingly rose and lingered in sight above our heads. That being said, Marcelo Dos Santos has done an impressive job in compressing such complicated material for the stage.

Rafi (Robert Gilbert), who is hired by the Corporacy to take away Charlie’s parents for their scientific acumen and then sent after Charlie himself, affronts the audience from the beginning – wearing a hoodie – and presumes we judge him, because he’s black and might take drugs, he says. Questions about race reoccur – Charlie is black, but his blackness he identifies as from London, not from his father’s country. These are pertinent issues to be raised and ones the school children in the audience evidently identified with, as they laughed that anyone should assume that a black boy identified culturally with a distant ‘homeland’. The production handled issues boldly, but rather obviously. Complicite needed to readjust the balance of their ‘show and tell’ rather more towards the show.

Lionboy Tour Dates ComplicitePercussionist Stephen Hiscock stole the show for me, with sensitive accompaniment providing a live, unpolished and improvised feel to the music. The set design by Jon Bausor was ingeniously adaptable, if incongruously both rustic and modern with straw and faded paintwork together with the high-tech inside of the Corporacy. The circular, hanging backdrop that could be the moon at nighttime, a red sun in the savannah, or the inside of a computer hard disk, was the central, adaptable feature.

Even computers have language in this story and the triumphant solution to bring down the Corporacy via a multilingual and therefore computer-speaking chameleon (played by the deftly acrobatic Lisa Kerr), was a rather rushed and seemingly unlikely denouement. This left us feeling patronised, not least also because of the condescending tone of the actors and their petty waves to the audience at the end.

Perhaps the performance was skewed by it being a matinee with two large school groups in attendance, but it didn’t manage to capture my attention in the way that, to use a famed example of a children’s book transformed for theatre, War Horse did. So it can’t have been only that, as a university student, I wasn’t precisely Complicite’s target audience. Nonetheless, this was a warm-hearted production with graceful aesthetics and some clever storytelling.

Originally published by the Boar. I attended the matinee performance of Lionboy at Warwick Arts Centre, Thursday 20 June 2013. Complicite originally toured with the production until 21 July 2013 (see image.) The Tricycle Theatre is reviving the production from Wednesday 17 December 2014 – Saturday 10 January 2015.