The story of toys coming to life and conducting their own lives in the absence of children may sound familiar but The Hand-Me-Down People takes a far bleaker look at these discarded trinkets of childhood. These toys have found themselves stranded on a shelf, neglected by the children below and slowly driving each other over the edge.
The figurines, as they call themselves, are reminiscent of a bygone age of childhood imagination, fantasy, and fairy tales. Piper, a one-armed former hero, Monster, Princess, and a Witch-Enchantress-Grandmother with split personalities are well drawn characters for the most part, deliberately echoing the complexity of the games they played years before. The new arrival, Doll, in contrast, is gloriously vapid, high-pitched, and childish, though this initial characterisation makes the hasty development of her character a tad awkward. The acting is good across the board, though not spectacular, and limited by the less subtle moments in the writing and the confines of their characters. The standout performance comes from Jessica Courtney for, while the difference between the Enchantress and Grandmother could be more clearly marked, her subtle quiet presence brings considerable pathos to the proceedings.
The writing at times is a little too obvious, the supposed subtext of the Princess’ disappearance having been far too clearly heralded from the start. However, other twists in the plot work well and, despite drawing on previous ‘toys are alive’ narratives, the show does strike a note of originality. Unfortunately, the show’s quality dips under the weight of didactic nostalgia – children have changed, their obsession with video games destroying their imaginations while Piper keeps harking back to ‘30 years ago’ when the children’s father played better games. Leaving aside the strange decision to hail the 80s as a golden age for children, it’s a heavy and boring message and it seems incongruous with such a young cast. However, these are niggles in a charming if slightly boring script.
The set is well realised, creating an excellent idea of the scale of the figurines and the neglect they live in, and the lighting is good if stark and obvious – fewer blackouts would have improved the pacing. The constant music provided by a ‘music box lady’ can prove irritating after a while, but since that is the point and, for the most part ,it works unobtrusively it is not too distracting. The premise and advertising may give the impression that this is a children’s show, but given suicide proves one of the major themes, think twice before bringing your children.