The Italia Conti Ensemble returns to the Festival Fringe with their second-year students again split into two groups, each with its own choice of play. This production of
For Italia Conti Ensemble this is a showcase production in which their remarkable talents are exhibited to the full.
Twain’s original narrative is a complex tangle of events and incidents encompassing a long journey up the Mississippi. The play’s 1996 premiere performance at the Greenwich Theatre lasted three hours, no doubt with an interval. To reduce all of this to one hour, and include original songs, is a challenge that the Italia Conti Ensemble takes on with their usual bravado. Always able to impress with their full-cast tableaux, the opening scene is in progress as the audience enters. Worshippers are in church, seated in rows with backs to the audience. Facing his congregation, the pastor leads them in prayer; a reminder that we are in the bible belt, with God-fearing people and slave owners. This dim, sombre scene is in stark contrast to bright light of the southern sun that bathes the rest of the action.
The pace soon quickens and the action heats up as Huck begins his journey. Finding his way through the ever-changing set is one of his challenges. The play was designed with flexibility in mind and the cast shows effortless ability in deftly moving boxes and bits to create homes, caves, a theatre and outdoor locations. The transformation of the bathtub to a boat was particularly ingenious, but just one example of accomplished staging. As his journey progresses, Huck meets an array of people. Actors plucked from the ensemble assume various roles and, irrespective of age, gender or colour, they create the old and the young, the brutal and the comic, the compassionate and the clumsy. They all have fine speaking and singing voices; delivery is clear and the sound crisp. The performance is rapid, but they also manage to slow it down for more pensive scenes and never lose their sense of timing.
There could be quibbles about trying to condense so much into the sixty-minute slot and the subsequent loss of narrative content or about the play not fully exposing the grim life of slaves on southern plantations. The former actually demonstrates considerable skill and the latter is not of their making. For Italia Conti Ensemble this is a showcase production in which their remarkable talents are exhibited to the full. The play is merely a vehicle. It should carry them to many more outstanding successes.