Condensing the complexities of a 200-page novel into two hours of stage time is no mean feat. But if there's any company who can succeed, Shared Experience is it. They are, in my mind, the undisputed masters of literary adaptations, responsible for breathtaking reinterpretations of classics such as Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Eliot's Mill on the Floss and Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre.
Their latest page-to-stage offering is Angela Carter's 1967 novel, The Magic Toyshop, about 15-year-old Melanie whose life takes a nasty turn after her parents' death. Though set recently in south London, Toyshop - adapted by Bryony Lavery and directed by Rebecca Gatward - retains Shared Experience's familiar otherworldliness, thanks to the company's stylised, and intensely physical, approach combined with Carter's own narrative use of myth and magic.
The production's Biblical connotations are particularly overt. As the story opens, Melanie's frolics in her idyllic country garden are brought to a quick end following some mischief with an apple tree (à la Eden - geddit?). She and her young siblings, Jonathan and Victoria, are then cast out to live in the harsh city with their uncle Philip, who runs the toyshop of the title.
Philip's is a Noah's Ark of a household, crammed with not one but two sets of orphans. There's Melanie's trio plus Philip's mute wife Margaret and her two brothers, Finn and Francie, who moved in after their own parents' death. Under Philip's tyranny, this full house is emptied of fun, with the shop's toys kept well out of reach. Philip's waves of violence build steadily until, as with the Ark, the place is engulfed in a flood of sorts, from which only one pair of beasts will survive.
All this symbolism is heightened by Liz Cooke's split-open hull of a set - riddled with trapdoors, trunks and skeletal ladders - which the agile cast clambers over, under and about like a jungle gym.
Performance-wise, the Shared Experience emphasis is on ensemble acting and, true to form, the ensemble here is uniformly strong. A few special mentions must go to Harriet Ashcroft for her rambunctious toddler Victoria, on the chase with her invisible dog, and to Penny Layden who, despite her Margaret's lack of dialogue conveys a groundswell of emotion. Damian O'Hare as the plucky Finn is also endearing, as is Hannah Watkins' innocent but knowing Melanie. (Note: on the press night, Watkins was recovering from a back injury and bravely battled to perform despite obvious physical pain.)
Although Carter's modern story of sexual awakening doesn't seem to pack quite as much political or historical punch as some of Shared Experience's previous efforts, there's still plenty of magic in this toyshop.