This production at Southwark Playhouse is the first stage adaption of one of Diana Wynne Jones’s fantasy novels, however it comes as no surprise that it was also made into a successful animation by Japan’s Studio Ghibli in 2004.
The mystical tale lends itself incredibly well to movie-like treatment and this is clearly the prime focus of creative duo Davy and Kristin McGuire as they bring a Christmas extravaganza with a difference to Southwark’s iconic Vault.
Howl’s Moving Castle is the tale of Sophie, a young and beautiful hat maker with hidden depths, who unwittingly incurs the wrath of the Witch of the Waste and finds herself transported both into premature old age and the castle of the enigmatic and self-obsessed magician Howl, whose reputation for eating out the hearts of pretty young maidens (he is apparently something of a supernatural womaniser) goes before him.
The white cardboard castle set that dominates the stage is innovative and ambitious, acting both as the play’s central character (voiced by Stephen Fry) and the blank canvas for the cinematic digital projections which are nothing short of breath-taking throughout.
As the castle cavorts seamlessly through space and time, its walls provide the backdrop for snow-topped mountains, sun-drenched desert, young Sophie’s hat shop and the mysterious darkness of its own interior. Fyfe Dangerfield’s stirring score compliments the stunning visuals perfectly, yet never overpowers or distracts from the pictorial magic.
Being unfamiliar with the original novel, it is difficult to comment on how well the story translates to the stage, but with only this production to judge, I would conclude not particularly well. The effects, whilst undeniably ground-breaking and technically dazzling, simply distract from weaker aspects of the production and the fact that events unfold too quickly and with little or no explanation.
Probably not an issue for those audience members that are already familiar with the book and film, but frustrating for those that are not. Whilst the performances of the three physically present actors are mainly strong, the taped narration from Stephen Fry is often muffled and difficult to understand as is the background voice of Calcifer, Howl’s live-in fire demon, played by James Wilkes.
Howl is a villain with a heart he wants desperately to deny and Daniel Ings deals marvellously with this inner conflict, however he simply hasn’t time to really explore and develop the character.
Entertaining on a level and visually pleasing, but equal emphasis on sound and direction would ensure a more rounded and consistently magical theatrical experience.
- Helen Macdonald