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#78 Howl’s Moving Castle at the Southwark Playhouse

December 5, 2011
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Talking of art in tunnels – a theatrical production of Howl’s Moving Castle is currently being staged under the railway arches in the Vault at the Southwark Playhouse. We went along to a preview showing. Was it going to be some kind of Miyazaki rip-off? Or a pantomime take on the story, or what?

It’s neither of these. It’s actually a valiant, family-friendly attempt to pull off a truly transmedia theatre production, using a white stage with a pop-up cardboard castle in the centre as a giant projection screen. This massive backdrop, the size of a cinema screen, lets the creators paint with moving images, conjuring up villages, animated trees, meadows, mountains, fire sprites, magical explosions, and of course the interior of the Moving Castle itself.

The story seems to be from Diana Wynne Jones’s original rather than Miyazaki’s elaboration. The girl Sophie, cruelly turned into an old woman by a jealous witch, seeks help from the crotchety Howl, the heart-eating wizard who sequesters himself inside his magical travelling castle. A good spring-clean, a magical mystery tour and a friendship later, and we’ve seen our two gutsy principals beat the witch and find true love.

If the story takes a back seat to the SFX at times, you can’t really blame the directors. With a magical moving canvas, it’s easy to show the castle trundling between lands, Sophie jumping through the sky in seven-league boots or the magicians fighting a sorcerous duel. Like Howl’s Castle, however, this visual magic is a bit creaky around the edges. The good side of having so many pre-recorded elements – Stephen Fry has recorded one of the voices! – was balanced by technical snags. There seemed to be a second’s gap between the actor’s lines and the recorded ones, which didn’t help to keep the audience’s disbelief suspended. The background animation, while impressive, didn’t always sync with the action as tightly as it could have. And it’s unclear how much space the actors get to really bring everything to life when they’re trying to fit around complex audio-visual cues. It doesn’t take much to pull you out of the action when the small arched space is so stark, and the acoustics tricky at best.

We hope these were just teething preview problems, though, because when it worked, the effect was jaw-dropping: a hyper-powered shadowplay. How else could the audience look high above a town, zooming in until they land next to a tiny shop – and then for the windows of the shop to open and a real person to look out onto the stage? And when a desolate Howl is being comforted by an apparition that’s no more than a projection – and yet seems to be able to touch him – it’s nothing short of enchanting. At the very least, this is a technique that’s just starting to be used properly. Future productions can only get more spectacular.

The castle stays in this spot until January 7th – then it’s off, so get tickets soon.

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