Oyster Boy: Haste Theatre

Assembly George Square Theatre (Venue 8) Aug 3-16, 19-28 at 12:40
Box Office Adults £9 / Concessions £8

Haste Theatre – an all female company that focuses on incorporating physical expression, clown, and live music into storytelling – have revived their award-winning show Oyster Boy for a UK tour that lasts until the 14th of May. The play is inspired by Tim Burton’s poem, The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy,[1] but it is much lighter and more optimistic than its source material. Whereas the poem is a story of isolation which culminates with infanticide, Haste’s Oyster Boy is a more light-hearted adaptation, and its comedy is certainly a shade more innocent. Alongside the show, the company have written a piece explaining Oyster Boy’s inspirations, and it is notable that this opens not with a quote from Burton, but from the 1980 classic film The Elephant Man: “I am not an elephant, I am not an animal, I am a human being!”[2] This is apt as Sam, the unfortunate child born with an oyster-shaped head in Oyster Boy, can be seen in many ways as a surrealist version of John Merrick.

This is a visually striking production, especially through its use of colour. The chorus (Tamara Saffir, Elly Beaman-Brinklow, Jesse Dupré, and Sophie Taylor) each sport colourful polka dot dresses, and these four bring the vibrancy of the seaside into a traditional black box fringe theatre by pulling props out of picnic baskets and moving the play’s narrative forward through a variety of locations. Using bright blue fabric, ocean scenes are created with charming simplicity, including the pivotal scene in which Jim (Valeria Compagnoni) saves Alice (Lexie McDougall) from a shark attack. This moment launches the relationship that leads to the birth of Sam, Oyster Boy’s title role. Except this title role is in fact “performed” by a puppet. The members of the cast ably control the puppet protagonist, and we see Sam engage in all kinds of carefree beach activities, notably surfing and swimming.

True to the company’s stated desire to bring music into storytelling, Oyster Boy is carried forward with the help of upbeat barbershop musical numbers. These songs add to the performance’s 1950s aesthetic, and the accompanying explanatory piece makes clear this is no accident.[3] Haste are a company who don’t act without thinking, and the results are clear in the theatre that they produce. Not only do these musical interludes fit with the show’s narrative and overall aesthetic, they are also well performed and enjoyable in their own right.

Haste say that through Oyster Boy they wanted “to create something both entertaining and funny but which is faithful to the sadness and humanity at the heart of the story”,[4] and they have largely achieved this. One possible criticism, if indeed it is a criticism, would be that this production errs too much on the “entertaining and funny” side of this equation. Some of the sadness we might feel for Sam is dulled by the sanitised version of The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy that is presented to us. The disturbing narrative of Sam’s rejection at the hands of his parents, present in Burton’s poem, is more muted in Oyster Boy. The play’s focus instead falls on society’s rejection of Sam as a freak and, despite Sam’s close friendship with Polly (Jesse Dupré) and Molly (Tamara Saffir), this leads his parents to seek surgical help to “fix” their son. This surgical adventure is treated with more comedy than pathos, but this is clearly the angle that Haste have pursued and it is not necessarily a bad thing for theatre not to be overly depressing.

Oyster Boy is a dynamic and enjoyable piece of fringe theatre. It is little surprise that Haste have decided to revive it for a 2017 run as they have clearly spent a lot of time devising a coherent and well thought through new take on Tim Burton’s darkly comic poem. This production is sure to bring an explosion of colour to many fringe theatres throughout the country, just as it did to the Blue Elephant Theatre – a charming venue which I strongly recommend any interested Londoners discover for themselves.[5] Haste Theatre have made the story of Oyster Boy less melancholic. The combination of the music and the actors’ physical energy carries the story forward, making this not only an amusing, but also engaging piece of theatre.

Oyster Boy’s national tour runs until the 14th of May at various places around the UK. Dates and venues can be found here.

[1] Tim Burton, The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy & Other Stories (London: Faber and Faber, 1998). 29-49.

[2] http://hastetheatre.com/oyster-boy-inspirations/

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] http://www.blueelephanttheatre.co.uk/