The Toymaker’s Child
Photo: Caz Dyer
Written Dave Carey and devised by Chickenshed. Directed by Michael Bossisse, Bethany Hamlin, Cara McInanny & Jonny Morton
Vibrance, energy, slickness, inclusion, passion and epic scale are just six of the components of Chickenshed’s distinctive style. And this new show is true to form with four rotating ensemble casts of around 200 in each. I saw the Green Rota on press night with Beatrice Afhim as the eponymous child, Katy.
A very ingenious 2023 take on the Pinocchio story gives us the lonely daughter of a toymaker wishing for company. So, using an old computer chip he finds in a bin he creates a doll/toy/robot who has everything but feelings – so there’s a dramatic, colourful quest for them bringing in versions of Carlo Collodi’s original tales such as the con-(wo)men cats, the fairground and the near drowning. And to make it feel even more current there’s continual intercutting of news flashes from Mike’s News in a box above and his reporter on the ground. Clever stuff, indeed.
Courtney Dayes is convincing as PIN:OCCh10, moving with robotic precision and speaking mechanically but relaxing into joyful humanity at the end. Beatrice finds a very plausible girlish knowing innocence in Katy, ricocheting from frightened child to sensible young adult and back as adolescents do. Cara McInanny and Demar Lambert have a ball as the absurdly excessive but highly entertaining feline villains and Will Lawrence delights as the Fun Fair MC, expert on roller skates. Ashley Driver, meanwhile is admirably slimy as the news anchor, Mike and Lauren Cambridge, whose character seems to be modelled on Janet Street Porter, gives a well observed and witty performance.
Best of all, though is the ensemble work – small children, some who are unconventionally “abled” and in need of discreet support, young adults and staff members work together in extraordinarily complex and well disciplined routines. And several members of the ensemble emerge to sing short solos.
One of the things I admire most about Chickenshed productions is the use of signing. It takes the concept of “integral” to a new level. In the first scene in the toymaker’s workshop, for example, there are wooden dolls lying about who sit up to sign what the speaking characters are saying. Every word spoken or sung is signed by one of the eight expertly fluent “augmentors” (as the programme calls them) who are also part of the action, dancing or interacting with each other. They are all good to watch but Shiloh Maersk is in a class of his own. He has unusual physical eloquence – watching him is like listening to an actor with an exceptionally beautiful voice.
Above stage left, and occasionally partly visible, is the youth band, directed by Phil Haines and the sound is terrific – rich, imaginative and accurate.
These shows always feature large sections of the ensemble forming different groups because they can be rehearsed in their specific scenes. At the end, though, we see the entire cast on stage at once and, in The Toymaker’s Child, that’s the best moment of all. As always I walked back to Cockfosters station swallowing a lump in my throat.
People usually join Chickenshed in childhood because they want to do youth theatre. It is a huge testament to the unique Chickenshed ethos that so many of them then come to do their further and or higher education there. The staff, moreover, have predominantly come up through this route. So it really is like a family – a very warm and welcoming one. You sense it the moment you walk though the door of this one-off theatre company’s building. Congratulations to all concerned on yet another powerful production.