Review: Lionboy, Tricycle Theatre

This revival is absolutely bursting with glorious energy and vitality – if every show put as much oomph into their work as the cast and crew of Lionboy, London theatre would be an entirely different thing all together. Even the programme is an adventure in itself: too big to fit in your handbag, it folds out into a poster that intricately maps the adventures of Charlie Ashanti, a young boy on a quest across oceans, deep into jungles and in and out of a travelling circus to rescue his kidnapped parents. Trailed by the dreaded Corporacy, a pharmaceutical giant that will go to any brutal lengths to make a profit, Charlie sets out on a mission to rescue his parents from their grasp and encounters all manner of unexpected friends and adventures along the way.

Charlie, a boy who can speak to cats (both big and small) reminds his audience (both big and small!) to always question; to “take nobody’s word for it” he tells us, a mantra his mother has guided him to live by, and one that eventually leads him to find his parents. This story is, of course, one we have heard many times before before: a society held in the grasp of the greater corporate power and the subsequent triumph of the free-thinking individual, yet Complicite manages to give it new life. Directors Clive Mendus and James Yeatman certainly invite us into the political discussion, yet they speak in a language any child, or indeed any adult, may follow and understand. In fact, there’s a whole plethora of different languages in this production, from English and French, to Computer and Cat, topped off with a talking chameleon who can speak them all.

The ensemble make a cast of eight seem like a cast of twenty, their versatility really shining through in their fluent multi-roling. Particular stand-out performances include Lisa Kerr with her skilful acrobatics, the resounding voice of Femi Elufowoju. Jr as lion trainer Maccomo, keeping his audience on the edge of their seats and, of course, Martins Imhangbe’s Charlie for his gentle bravery and inexhaustible energy. Jon Bausor’s design and Christopher Nairne’s lighting, bravely exposing their audience to the internal workings of the magic on stage, provide a true sense of collaborative theatre-making: all elements work together symphonically to tell their audience the story. All this magic, accompanied by Stephen Hiscock’s percussion gently setting the tempo, make for a show that you can’t take your eyes off. The immensity of the story that needs presenting in the limited stage time does make for a slightly rushed sense to the piece, especially in the second half. Those final moments, clearly intended to be the most frightening of the play, are played out so swiftly that there is hardly time to really feel the danger of the situation that Charlie and the other characters are facing. The piecing of different sections together, interruptions and changes of location can be a little distancing at times, however the cast manage to drive the plot forwards with purpose and gusto.

Lionboy is a must-see for a family outing, or just an outing full stop – you don’t even need to bring the kids, as this is one for all ages. For hard-core Complicite fans, its mark can certainly be seen in the collage-like, mixed media of the storytelling taking place on stage: puppets, silhouettes, projection and intricate stage choreography retain in Lionboy that sense of Complicite magic and mastery of craft, yet here they present one of their famed literary adaptations in a far more accessible way than ever before.

Lionboy is playing at the Tricycle Theatre until 10 January 2015. For more information and tickets, see the Tricycle Theatre website. Photo by Mark Douet.