views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

The Nightingale and the Rose and Other Tales
The Landor Space
15th August 2018


Publicity photo for The Nightingale and the Rose and Other Tales

Photography © Tash Vasandani

When I think of Oscar Wilde, I think of his more controversial works first - The Picture of Dorian Gray or Salome, for example. I automatically remember the novels and plays he penned that really upset the delicate sensibilities of his time and ultimately contributed to his downfall. I guess there's something about a man with a supposedly debauched lifestyle and a bitterly tragic ending that makes you disassociate his name from the sheer innocence of fairytales. Orange Moon Theatre have done us all the immense favour of shining a light on The Nightingale and the Rose and Other Tales and collectively adapting some of Wilde's stories for the stage.

What draws me most to Wilde's fairytales is there's a distinct message of "life's rubbish - and?" running through them. The company retell his stories, largely faithfully, with a playful naivety that contrasts deliciously with the rather bleak endings that would have Mickey and Minnie in disbelieving tears. I guess given the way the author was treated in his own life, he wasn't that inclined to give anyone else the saccharine ending he was clearly never going to receive. We see devotion and real sacrifice rejected carelessly, to the point where you do feel shocked at just how bleak life can be sometimes. The plot may be basic - a student (Victor Mellors) seeking out a red rose for his lady love (Claudia Carroll) - yet the emotional response we have is quite complex. You can simplify a narrative all you want, but the subtleties of human behaviour remain, as do the complicated reactions to it. We empathise all too easily with the rejection.

The ensemble take it in turns to play a part and narrate the action, with co-directors Carroll and Francesca McInally ensuring the action flows beautifully, only ever pausing to take a breath between The Birthday of the Infanta and The Nightingale and the Rose. The set is largely undressed, with the production taking on the native look of the Landor Space's dark, modern design with clean cut lines. However, twinkly garlands of fairy lights and little illuminated bird- and insect-shaped bulbs are all that’s needed to give a magical, childlike innocence to the room. Andrew Whadcoat's lighting design really transforms the feel of the space, with bold reds and greens vividly showing shifts in tone. The sound is initially too loud for the unmiked performers, with the actors competing to be heard over the music, but this does soon resolve itself and perhaps can be attributed to bedding down in a new venue, having taken this show on tour to the Barons Court and Lion and Unicorn previously.

Although Charlotte Sparey can hold a tune, the nightingale's song seems to largely consist of scales, rather than the wistful, ethereal melody we expect from her hopelessly romantic character. Composers Carroll, Mellors and Sara Page could go further than they do, by giving Sparey something a bit more substantial to work with. She's clearly able to do more with her soulful range. Whilst the ensemble harmonise well with her, lending support, the overall sound - even when the whole group is involved - isn't particularly exciting or evocative. It's a missed opportunity to further contrast the nightingale's unwavering hope with the cruel reality of the student's situation.

Carroll is perhaps the most versatile, displaying a range of different expressions that make us at times laugh with her and at others, hate her. Sparey's earnest songbird and Hannah Webster's petulant princess are also very strong portrayals. Mellor and Felix Grainger fare best at the humorous elements of each mini-play, with the emotionally stunted student and the forest boy both particular highlights. Whilst it is true that Wilde didn't write a little forest boy into his work, Grainger's charmingly joyful take on the socially and financially inferior protagonist really justifies the role.

There is something wonderfully adult about the company's flair for storytelling. Nonetheless, there aren't any references that would be inappropriate for children, and as such it's a show that actually has a cross-generational appeal. There's a real art to what Orange Moon have created and I would encourage you to fall in love with some of Wilde's more obscure books. After all, as we learn, it seems to be pointless falling in love with a person - maybe this is as good as it gets.

The Nightingale and the Rose and Other Tales ran from 1st to 3rd August at the Lion and Unicorn, as part of the Camden Fringe. It opened on 15th August and runs until 19th August 2018 at the Landor Space.

Nearest tube station: Clapham North (Northern)

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