The Young Visiters

Enemy of spellcheckers and pedants alike, the misspelling in the title of The Young Visiters, in a new adaptation by Mary Franklin, is due to the fact that it comes from a novel written by 9-year-old girl, Daisy Ashford, in 1890. I chose to relay this information to my housemate after we had already taken our seats, and it was met with a groan. I don’t know what one expects from a novel written by a 9-year-old, but this particular story is complex, charming and hilarious.

Franklin’s adaptation is extremely faithful to the original novel, whilst being irreverent to its youthful naivety. Remaining true to the play’s roots, the action in this adaptation is driven by a narrator, played by Sophie Crawford. At times a clumsy device, this narrator is expertly used and suits the nature of the story well. Crawford’s narrator is enthusiastic and childlike, though not grotesquely so.

The small cast give committed, caricatured performances, illustrated perfectly by Marianne Chase’s Ethel Monticue, overly sweet and simpering with her golden curls and rosy-red cheeks. The cast often perform in multiple roles kept distinct through the skill of the performer; Andrew Brock is particularly adept as both the ‘portly butler’ and the larger-than-life Earl of Clincham. There are two examples of cross-gendered performances, one from Oscar Rickett as the housemaid and another from Leo Marcus Wan as Lady Gay Finchling. Rickett comically makes no attempt to disguise his gender, whereas Wan’s “very brisk lady in a tight silk dress” speaks in a rather high, exaggerated upper-class drawl. Either way the performances continue the production’s demand for the full imaginative involvement of the audience.

The actors follow the narration, capitalising on the moments where they can’t quite match up. We see many wonderful attempts of varying success at nigh-on-impossible descriptions; superior runs, stately walks and Wan’s hat trick of a superior smile, mysterious and  superior smile and even a “smile many and various”. This tension between levels of representation and description creates some beautifully surreal moments. Numerous rich text worlds are presented and held in balance simultaneously, blending and continuously creating new meanings for the audience.

The adaptation also exaggerates and makes great comic use of repeated refrains, the effect building each time. Characters seems to be continually giving each other “speaking looks”, and offering each other “costly” items of some description. The emphasis placed on such, often outdated, expressions pokes fun at the privileged, innocent world from which the story originated, enriching the tongue-in-cheek class satire of the novel.

The direction (also by Franklin) and design, by Carin Nakanishi, co-operate well. The twists and turns of this remarkably complex story, with a large number of distinct locations, are created through creative use of simple, well-executed movement sequences, an adaptable set, and numerous intricate props and signs.

The design has a quaint feel with suits the style of the piece; floral patterns abound. The production has an ad hoc and humble feel of a school or even living room play, yet one can see the meticulous and admirable level of preparation. This production is well-aware of its own limitations and uses them to comic effect. Many of the actors are taller than the wheeled screens and doors used to denote rooms and buildings, and performers occasionally clatter awkwardly behind the scenes or off-stage. When genuine mistakes are made – some spilled port, the wrong chord on the ukulele – they are acknowledged and dealt with in the spirit of the piece, to great comic effect. In this production, a piece of childish juvenilia is lovingly transformed into an involving, multi-layered and heart-warming piece.

The Young Visiters is playing Hen & Chickens Theatre until 15 June. For more information and tickets, see the Hen and Chicken’s website.