I love the Unicorn Theatre. It is a space that has finely mastered a skill. A skill that theatre for young people does not mean theatre dumbed down. It is a venue that assumes a prior knowledge upon an audience, or at least a willingness to learn. It is never patronising and almost always very exciting. The Chair may not be a classic by the Unicorn’s extremely high standards, but it still manages to maintain the theatre’s near-faultless record.
Gary Lagden plays O.D Sawyers, a nineteenth-century barber who regales his clientele with stories of old. We hear of the British Museum’s recent plundering of Egyptian artefacts, and the intrepid explorers involved, of mermaid catchers in the New Orleans, and of magic mirrors offering life-changing wishes every full moon. This is all accompanied by Lewis Gibson’s haunting score, arranged and performed by Christopher Preece who is as skilful on piano as he is on accordion, percussion or harmonica.
Lagden has the 7+ audience in the palm of his hand; they are engrossed. They leap out of their seats at the slightest whiff of audience participation, and even their faux-terrified whimpers are little more than masks for their simpering delight. They are immersed not only by his mastery of storytelling, but also by Louie Whitemore’s intricately designed set. Ominous-looking jars pepper the space, as do trinkets and paraphernalia accumulated during a life well travelled. The space transforms with effortless fluidity, both through the narrative and through clever scene transitions: a piano becomes a boat, while dusky lighting takes us into a pharaoh’s tomb. It drips with atmosphere.
Lagden skips from story to story. This keeps The Chair pacey, but does mean that the stories themselves feel a little unfinished and forgotten about. We never discover quite what happened to the mermaid catcher, or the man in the mirror, and this is, if truth be told, a little unsatisfactory. Perhaps one extended narrative with a beginning, middle and end would provide more punch than the snippets we are presented with. Maybe we just need to trust the young audience a little further to travel with us on this journey, rather than skinny-dip between stories. The Chair seems to lose its nerve ever so slightly as a result.
That said, The Chair is an intelligent and weighty piece, and if it does feel a little under-developed in places, this is only due to what we have come to expect from the Unicorn Theatre.
The Chair is playing at the Unicorn Theatre until 12 April. For tickets and more information, see the Unicorn Theatre website.