Willie Liam (Emperor)
Willie Liam (Emperor)
© Kevin Sheeky

Adapted for the stage from an ancient Chinese tale of friendship, duty and forbidden romance, The Butterfly Lovers is this season's in-house production from the Blue Elephant in Camberwell, a welcoming venue whose artistic team do so much to encourage local young people's participation in theatre.

Written principally by James Chamberlain while still a student, the play's heroine is Zhu, a nobleman's daughter who frets against the constraints of her restricted life and longs to go to school.

But the evil Emperor has barred girls from formal education, on pain of imprisonment or worse, so Zhu's pleas are rejected by her father, Gonguan.

This is a centuries-old story, but the tragedy is that even today, so many girls find themselves in a similar situation throughout the world. However, in this tale at least, Zhu achieves her aim by the cunning ruse of disguising herself as a boy.

Sweet-faced, sparky Shuang Teng as Zhu invites plenty of audience participation as she tries to work out how to make herself look like a convincing lad. She succeeds in fooling Liang (Martin Sarreal), her first school enemy who eventually becomes a steadfast companion.

Their slow-burning friendship is nicely played, with some entertaining antics as they outwit each other with a succession of practical jokes.

But although there's enthusiasm and energy from all the performers, this production has an awkward air of needing further rehearsal, and more focused direction to sharpen its delivery. The musical number is welcome, but it's evidently a struggle for some of the performers. And the modern-day references like "What Does the Fox Say" and, bizarrely, a mention of Rebekah Brooks, don't really work.

What does work is the final scene. Zhu's true identity is revealed and she has to leave school behind in readiness for her wedding to the cruel, spider-loving Emperor.

Desperate, Zhu and Liang become runaway lovers, and climb so high up the mountains that they're transformed into butterflies, complete with magnificently pleated golden wings. They dance together, and the choreography is simple but crisply performed, begging the question why there isn't more use of dance and movement in the rest of the show.

Kessehu-Usert James's costumes are attractive throughout, particularly Zhu's wedding dress and the Emperor's robes. Beth Heaton's delicate scene paintings, which are also used as shadow screens, add to the ambience.

This is a well intentioned show with much potential, but one that hasn't yet quite taken flight.