Review: ‘Skellig’

The wonder is awfully hard-won in "Skellig," the Young Vic Christmas show (through Jan. 31) that returns director Trevor Nunn to the site of such Shakespeare triumphs as "Othello" and "Timon of Athens" and reteams him with designer John Napier, Nunn's scenic collaborator on, among others, "Nicholas Nickleby" and "Cats."

The wonder is awfully hard-won in “Skellig,” the Young Vic Christmas show (through Jan. 31) that returns director Trevor Nunn to the site of such Shakespeare triumphs as “Othello” and “Timon of Athens” and reteams him with designer John Napier, Nunn’s scenic collaborator on, among others, “Nicholas Nickleby” and “Cats.” (The production’s impressive pedigree is a tribute to Young Vic a.d. David Lan, who has turned an always cheerful venue into an essential London destination.) If “Skellig” falls some way short of essential, that has less to do with the occasional charms of Newcastle writer David Almond’s source material than with the evening’s protracted reliance on story-theater techniques that looked pretty tired a decade or two ago (around, shall we say, the time of “Cats”).

Nunn and his creative team ladle on the celestial lights and the scrappy environmental setting, not to mention a climactic ode to joy. What’s missing is any organic radiance in an overextended hymn to the capacity to heal that might be capable of moving us on its own, immediate terms, without a barrage of often twee special effects, as if “Cats” has suddenly spawned kittens.

The pivotal character, in fact, isn’t actually the monstrously encrusted, abject Skellig (David Threlfall, the defining Smike in the Nunn-Napier “Nickleby”), the garage dweller who is first glimpsed emerging from beneath a tarpaulin to growl the question, “What do you want?” His discoverer is young Michael (Kevin Wathen), older brother to a baby sister who is herself perilously close to death.

While his mother (Cathryn Bradshaw) fights perpetual hysterics and dad (a likable Antony Byrne) deals with his own heart problems, Michael muses on the curative power of love. As luck would have it, he finds a test case in Skellig, the clipped angel who is soon forsaking his usual supper of cold mice in favor of the Chinese food Michael is able to smuggle to him. (Nos. 27 and 53 on the take-out menu get such a workout that one leaves the theater ready to dive into the nearest Chinese eatery.)

His burgeoning rapport with Skellig notwithstanding, Michael finds a more human companion in the bird-obsessed Mina (Noma Dumezweni), who takes Michael to visit the owls only to be treated in return to a trip to Skellig. Fascinated by the cracked, crooked feathers that cover Skellig’s wings, the two visitors prompt Skellig to regain a strength that this mysterious creature thought was all but lost. No prizes for guessing that Michael’s sickly sister eventually does her own Lazarus act, too.

On the page, “Skellig’s” charms are there to be acknowledged, alongside just enough references to William Blake to ensure adults stay the course. Almond’s stage version contains the occasional Blake-related joke (“Is that the Blake who’s got the butcher shop in town?”), but it’s virtually impossible not to feel the entire evening is relying on set dressing to drive a sweet if wispy narrative, with a passing nod to “our dark interior” a sound-alike reference to the National’s concurrent “His Dark Materials” up the road: a second adaptation of a children’s tale that has crossed over even more sizably into the mainstream.

The synthetic feel to the evening hangs over Shaun Davey’s score, most egregiously during one number — “bones, bones/oh my bones” go the literally arthritic lyrics — that finds Michael encircled by a chorus of the infirm, all wielding walkers (those with a trans-Atlantic perspective will be muttering, “The Producers”).

The broader outlines of the show hint at a variant on “Whistle Down the Wind,” in which some Lancashire children discover a convict, whom they take to be Jesus, hiding out in their barn. And though Nunn never directed Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical version of that story, bits of “Skellig” suggest he is doing as much here, which may account for the uneasy limbo this show occupies between technical extravaganza (at which Napier is pretty much nonpareil) and parable of uplift.

While children are likely to look goggle-eyed at the manufactured enchantment, a lot of cutesy acting included, adults are likely to lament the waste of Threlfall, a wonderful talent who is given shockingly little to do as Skellig beyond look glowering in Elise Napier’s aptly grungy costumes; you yearn for the actor to play a real character, not just an agent of renewal.

For genuine innocence, one is best advised to pay heed to recent drama school graduate Wathen in the tricky part of the boy-man Michael, who, tellingly, goes on to be a writer. It can’t be easy holding your own as a proponent of amazement in the middle of an auditorium that resembles an aviary. The fact that Wathen manages to do so merits its own undivided awe.

Skellig

Young Vic Theater; 430 Seats; £25 ($45.50) top

Production

A Young Vic Theater presentation of a play in two acts by David Almond. Directed by Trevor Nunn.

Creative

Sets, John Napier; costumes, Elise Napier; lighting, Howard Harrison; music, Shaun Davey; sound, Fergus O'Hare; movement, Kate Flatt. Opened Dec. 3, 2003. Reviewed Dec. 13. Running time: 2 HOURS, 25 MIN.

Cast

Skellig - David Threlfall Mum - Cathryn Bradshaw Dad - Antony Byrne Michael - Kevin Wathen Leaky - Mo Zainal Mrs. McKee - Noma Dumezweni Mina - Akiya Henry Coot - Ashley Artus
With: Sarah Cattle, William Osborne, Chris Lennon.
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