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The Trial of Josie K at the Unicorn Theatre – review

Katie Hims' adaptation of a Kafka classic runs until 19 February

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Tom Moores and Nkhanise Phiri in The Trial of Josie K
© Mark Senior

If I were looking for a classic novel to adapt into a piece of children's drama, I'm fairly sure Franz Kafka's nightmarish The Trial would have been pretty far down my list, and not just because it's already had several stage versions (the Young Vic alone has tackled it twice). Lucky then for the genre of young people's theatre that I am not writer Katie Hims, whose fresh, drastic reimagining of that masterpiece of dystopian absurdism is not just a complete success but a near-constant source of surprising delight.

Kafka's bank clerk Josef K, arrested and prosecuted for unspecified crimes by agents of an inhumane, authoritarian state, here becomes contemporary schoolgirl Josie K (played with a glorious combination of sass and charm by Nkhanise Phiri) forced on the day after her birthday to report to a mysterious government ministry to undergo a series of tests and checks for reasons unknown to her, and us. This being children's theatre (the recommended ages on the Unicorn's website are 9 to 13, although I imagine older teenagers would find much here to identify with and mull over), the mood and content is a lot less disturbing than in the Kafka version, but Hims and director Leigh Toney have preserved the overall sense of surrealism and dislocation.

Characters and objects pop up in expected places, a buttoned-up ministry official wanders on inexplicably attired as a giant rabbit, music, poetry and apparently anything else fun is banned, some moments are authentic red herrings while others are explained by the quietly moving conclusion. Josie never really finds out why she's in trouble but her main suspicion, which involves a family bereavement, is something that is likely to resonate with any children who have experienced loss in their young lives.

Where the Kafka original is leavened with moments of bleak humour, Hims's sunnier but still gently troubling take is at times laugh-out-loud funny. Crucially though, it never talks down to its young audience, allowing them to marinade in the weirdness of this tall tale, and take on board a great lesson about the importance of staunch friendships (Jadie Rose Hobson is adorable as Josie's endlessly kind and upbeat best mate). Finally, it offers, with the lightest of touches, some truly valuable insights in terms of youthful depression, guilt and loss. I'd be lying if I said that I didn't have a lump in my throat before the play's end.

As the officer in charge of Josie's case, a fabulously deadpan Tom Moores skilfully steers a path between sinister and hilarious. All three performers have barrel loads of energy but never at the expense of detail and honesty in their acting: they're a winning team. Toney's staging is fast-paced and inventive as it plays out on Rose Revitt's deceptively simple pastel-coloured set that's part school corridor and part bureacrat's hallucination, with its multiple drawers, doors and hatches.

This is kids' theatre at its absolute best. It's dynamic, smart, instructive but never preachy, full of heart and mischief. The greatest achievement of it though may be that it succeeds in finding an authentic gravitas and truth alongside all the rollicking fun: in those moments, The Trial of Josie K is wonderfully serious… and seriously wonderful.