Wonder Boy at Bristol Old Vic – review

Sally Cookson’s production continues its run until 26 March

Raphel Famotibe in Wonder Boy
Raphel Famotibe in Wonder Boy
© Steve Tanner

Few things in theatre can match the electricity of a first-night crowd that believes what they've just seen will join the canon. Not since Pink Mist blew the roof off with its poetic energy and blissful physicality has Bristol Old Vic had a night like it. A collective standing ovation and an audience roaring with laughter and love from the first minute. Wonder Boy, by rights, should be on the school curriculum tomorrow.

What makes this an even bigger celebration is it has been brought to the stage by two fertile imaginations made in Bristol. Ross Willis studied in Filton while Sally Cookson found her directing boots as the Youth Director at Bristol Old Vic. Between them, they have found a synergy that suggests the start of a beautiful friendship. Willis talks about his love of putting an impossible stage direction in every scene, which is also Cookson's MO. Her theatrical language is so secure that we barely notice the impossible anymore.

12-year-old schoolboy Sonny (recent RADA graduate Raphel Famotibe making an excellent stage debut) struggling to come to terms with his stammer, creates a superhero, Captain Chatter, to help him deal with his impediment. But when the new headmistress decides to cast him as a guard in the school's production of Hamlet, this comic book hero goes from friend to foe, after all, what good is a hero who stops you from speaking when you need to deliver the first line of the most iconic play in the English language.

Willis' writing has all the roguish energy of a Year 8 inner-city classroom (‘'Miss, did you fight in the Second World War'') and is filled with f-bomb expletives from students and staff alike. Willis has a terrific theatrical imagination – the mash-up of Shakespeare fighting students with his quill is great fun – and his dialogue also sizzles with a precis of Hamlet being a worthy set piece, though his narrative doesn't surprise as much as you might expect. Like Richard Curtis, you can see where the arc is going from minute one and the characters are sketched in comic book sans (the mouthy best friend, the sardonic but kindly teacher, the Dolores Uxbridge headteacher doling out punishment with a smile), but it doesn't matter as it's all delivered with such brio and a climax that audiences have been clamouring for.

In a show all about the struggle of communication, it is wonderful to see captioning become an integral part of the show in Tom Newell's eye-popping designs, ka-pows emojis, and textspeak ruffling up against the poetry of the iambic pentameter. Katie Sykes's lurid lime and orange designs take us from family home to comic book fantasy to school and back, while Laila Diallo's movement work bleeds into every moment. With so much going on it's a wonder that the performances have a chance to breathe and yet all five cast members make a telling contribution. Juliet Agnes is in hilarious form as the gobby friend who takes Sonny under her wing, Jenny Fitzpatrick pulls a strong double as the ghastly head and as a more sympathetic Mum, while Ramesh Meyyappan has the physical and facial dexterity of the best silent movie stars as the comic book hero wanting to save Sonny from speaking out loud. Yet, it's the wonderful Amanda Lawrence as the assistant head wanting to help the children, but at sea in the new legislation that takes the honours, her weary, seen-it-all-before cynicism mixed with dreams of her charges' futures yet created can be seen in staffrooms up and down the land.

At 90-minutes straight through it rockets along, played in full primary colour, it may not always be subtle but it's a work designed to celebrate and find joy in overcoming adversity. You can't help but be washed along with it.