Wizardry seems to be the order of the day at the King’s Head at the moment. Their first season of in-house productions got under way earlier this year with the fairytale romp Betwixt!, and now The Shadowmaster is bringing all the fun of the other realm back to North London. Sadly however, The Shadowmaster does not have the same sprightly self irony as the earlier production and falls a little flatter because of it.
King’s Head artistic director Stephanie Sinclaire has adapted The Shadowmaster from the novel Dear Brutus by J.M Barrie, better known as the creator of Peter Pan, which Sinclair also adapted for a successful stage production in 2006.
The plot is a little convoluted, but as far as I could discern, six strangers are invited to dinner by an unknown host (echoes of the wonderfully camped-up film Clue abound). After some wild speculation about why they have all been invited to dinner, the guests meet their host, who rather mysteriously talks of taking them for a walk in the woods.
Somehow, somewhere in these magic woods, which seem to appear out of fresh air, and strangely not to warrant any form of scenery or prop change, the lives of all four guests, plus the servant, are altered as they are able to live the lives they dream of, with varying degrees of success. While Will transforms from tortured soul into a proud and doting father, Joanna, played with finesse by the suitably glamorous Charlotte Radford, turns inexplicably from a steamy seductress into a cardigan wearing drip of a wife.
It is certainly all very entertaining, and there are some fine performances - Helen Anker shows her versatility as the snooty Lady Caroline who turns free spirit in the woods, and Neil Henry, who at one moment seems perfectly cast as the sappy and crooked servant and at the next inhabits the skin of a money-hungry city worker with similar ease, is as thrilling in his acting as in his magic, while Billy Geraghty’s tormented artist is masterful.
Anthony Coleridge’s sound design is well judged and perfectly toned for the work, and Sinclaire displays some deft directorial touches, but the adaptation work is a little stilted. There are several missing links, and it’s not really clear what exactly happens in the woods, or indeed, why it happens. Some people find happiness, some people find degradation, some people go on a mental safari, and an adorable little girl called Margaret dances, giggles and moralises.
There are some nice moments in The Shadowmaster, playing on familiar fairytale characters and themes to create a playful tale about being careful what we wish for. Unfortunately, not all the acting is of a high enough quality to combine cheeky magic with serious moralising, and at just over ninety minutes including an interval, the real mystery here is why such a substantial plotline is pared down so close to the bone that it struggles to be comprehensible.