This production – which has been previously performed at Christchurch Mansion in Ipswich – is now performed in the Barn on Jimmy's Farm just outside Ipswich, and that adds to the Dickensian ambience that permeates the play.
Despite having a multitude of characters within the story, only three actors, two puppets and the fixed staging of an Victorian attic provide the excellent framework for a fast-paced, engaging and entertaining script.
In this revival, two of the original cast members remain but Percy Pickles is now performed by Laurence Pears. All three young actors perform with great energy and verve,with Pears and Joel Johnson juggling as many as five roles – quickly morphing into them by diving behind the Victorian attic set and making minor changes to costume.
Through this dramatic magic, we learn that Alicia's father has further squandered his already limited means by purchasing a huge salmon because a lady at the fishmonger said that it possessed a magic fishbone. This fishbone has the power to grant her one wish – but the timing and the purpose of that wish is important, otherwise doom will befall her.
The name of the fishbone is Clyde (because of his Scottish burr); he is manipulated by Joel Johnson (and designed by Jimmy Grimes, who is currently the assistant puppetry director on Warhorse.) The flexibility, elegant design and handling of both Clyde and Dog Fish (the other puppet which is introduced to us later) lift these from not just being accompaniments to the human actors but characters in their own right.
Anna Doolan is a delight playing Alice, the Dickensian poor little genteel girl, who copes with her father's cash flow difficulties "until quarter day", an ill mother and the eighteen younger siblings her father has burdened her with caring for. Her portrayal is perfectly pitched, with the right mixture of feisty frustration with her father's incompetence and personal vulnerability.
In addition to the excellent handling of Clyde, Johnson also juggles the roles of the angry creditor Mr Mackerel, Alicia's mother and the manipulator for Dog Fish. Pears takes on the roles of Mrs Flancrust, Fairy Grandmarina and Alicia's love interest and ally Percy Pickles with similar aplomb.
This is a beautifully crafted production that mixes together a faithful script, energetic acting and inventive puppetry to create a Dickensian treat especially suited to non-traditional theatrical spaces.
The Magic Fishbone plays at Jimmy's Farm, Ipswich until 5 January and at the Church of St George the Martyr, Borough on 11 January.