Gareth Murphy’s voice has a hush that whisks us away into the faraway lands of 14-year-old Boy. The gothic fantasy piece, adapted by Murphy at the Blue Elephant Theatre in Camberwell, is based on Mervyn Peak’s novella of the same name – Boy in Darkness. It has a childlike quality of storytelling that is both delightfully riveting and desperately compelling. It is “tinged,” as the Boy describes, “with sweetness and menace.”
We are set in a fantastical world of half-human half-beasts and white dust. Where there had been 100 such hybrid creatures, there are but three left: the deferent, pandering Goat; a regal, dandy Hyena, and the Blind Lamb, lord of the subterranean empire, and the villain of the piece. There’s a darkness and sadness to the story, and more humour and lightness than the ‘gothic fantasy’ genre implies. It is a play about young heroism, as the Boy uses his wits, intelligence and imagination to triumph over adversity.
Peak – an artist, illustrator and writer – was known for his haunting adventure tales and was frequently compared to his contemporary J.R.R. Tolkien. Boy in Darkness forms part of the Gormenghast series of Titus Groan – the Boy of our play, here in his teenage years. Peak’s slightly archaic language ornaments some of the cadences of the script.
The small, black box studio space of the Blue Elephant Theatre becomes the cliffs, the rocks and gullies, as the Boy makes his dangerous escape from his castle home. Murphy clambers up on the radiators, around the walls, and behind the audience, who are sat around three sides of the performance space on chairs and cushions. By breaking beyond the low level thrust stage, the whole theatre can become the world of John Walton’s production.
Murphy – who creates the narrator, boy, and all the other characters – has the physical presence and agility of a contemporary dancer. The Goat has a hunched back and an affected bleat while the Hyena vaunts around the stage, shoulders thrust strongly back, like a Latin dancer. Beautifully controlled, he negotiates the space with astonishing speed and accuracy. Edging close to the audience and balancing on the rustic, wooden set – a wide ladder with a tarnished mirror backdrop – he finds his footholds with ease. His background as a mime artist finds its way into unobtrusive gestures that evoke the boundaries of the world and its characters.
An individual storyteller makes each audience member’s imagination key. Here, sound, lighting, body and set never intrude on our freedom to conjure. Sifting, slanting light – designed by Fridthjofur Thorsteinsson – highlights Murphy’s features sat up on a shelf, or backlights his form as the fearful Lamb. The sound design by Jon McLeod works further to set us on edge, as the Goat and Hyena take the Boy deep into the mines of the Lamb’s underworld empire.
The production is testament to the honourable risks this little theatre has taken over the two years of development. Its physical eloquence and bold storytelling do justice to Peak’s fantasy realm.
Boy in Darkness is playing at Blue Elephant Theatre until 4 April. For more information and tickets, see the Blue Elephant Theatre website. Photo by Lidia Crisafulli.