Toys are Not for Use

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Review of 'The Magic Toyshop' by Angela Carter, Old Vic, London

'That summer she was 15, Melanie discovered she was made of flesh and bone. 'Angela Carter's 1967 novel opens with the start of the painful and enchanting journey of adolescent self discovery. Brimming with intense symbolism, the dynamic theatre company Shared Experience, with their mix of physical theatre and narration, accomplish a compelling adaptation.

Initially we find Melanie in comfortable countryside surroundings with her younger brother and toddler sister. She fantasises about growing up with trepidation, wishing she was 40 with the knowledge of what her life would hold. She dreams of falling in love, of marriage, and all this framed by her childhood innocence. One night the fantasy goes one step further, as Melanie tries on her mother's wedding dress and steps out into the garden. Finding herself locked out, she climbs the apple tree back to her bedroom, ruining the precious dress in the process.

Within the next hour both her parents are killed in a plane crash. Laden with guilt, Melanie is sent with her siblings to stay with her domineering Uncle Phillip in south London. He owns a toyshop but hates children. Also living in the 'madhouse' are Margaret, Phillip's wife, who hasn't spoken since they married, and her two brothers, Finn and Frankie.

Melanie is thrust into an unfamiliar family full of secrets, where Uncle Phillip pulls the strings, creating a tyrannical hold over the household. The magic of Phillip's toys is forbidden to the children who, in his view, should be seen and not heard, just like women. The magic is only allowed under Phillip's control in his macabre puppet shows, in which Melanie is forced to take part. Her budding sexual awareness is manipulated by Phillip and noticed by him, and he spies on her through a peephole between their bedrooms.

Carter's story is filled with mythical Old Testament references--the forbidden fruit of the garden of Eden, the Ark and its destruction--leaving Finn and Melanie, her childhood dissolved, facing creation anew.

'The Magic Toyshop' is well suited to the company, who carry this adaptation through on many levels. Hannah Watkins is superb, capturing both the self assurance and the vulnerability of Melanie's adolescence. Her narration was carried within every facial expression as much as through the words themselves. Shared Experience achieve a compelling and believable piece with subtlety and vitality. Highly recommended.