In this marvellous production from UCLU Runaground, the creatures from Lewis Carroll’s classic poem become metaphors for the inner demons a young boy must fight as he learns to cope with a parent’s illness. A sensitive script, relatable characters and exquisite design not only make this ingenious conceit accessible to a young audience, but holds them utterly transfixed.
The Jabberwocky provides a rich visual language and an exciting allegory that engages, challenges and entertains, whilst handling complex and emotionally difficult themes.
The play opens with a boy (an endearing Matt Neabamer) being woken up by his mother (an outstanding Charlotte Holtum). Immediately, the characters’ jostling and teasing affection creates a compelling, warm relationship. Despite UCLU Runaground being a student company, both actors play their respective ages - the son is about eight years old - with remarkable control.
When a health problem that the son calls “the monsters in your chest” starts to cause trouble, the mother is admitted to hospital. Here, the tenderness and humour in Holtum’s performance help make a potentially distressing scene watchable without removing the empathy that we need to feel with her son. Casper Cech-Lucas and Laurence Young’s script does so too: the boy’s dialogue includes all sorts of phrases that we can tell his mother has taught him as ways of understanding – and coping with – the family’s difficult situation.
These feel like characters with histories and bonds of affection that are, in turn, extended to the audience. Children will relate to them very quickly.
To teach him about bravery, the boy’s grandmother (Bella Driessen) tells him the legend of the Jabberwocky and he is soon off to investigate, armed with a backpack, wellies and his favourite teddy. In the forest, he meets a cast of eccentric characters and exotic monsters. These are brought to life by a seemingly endless parade of costumes, props and puppets, all designed by Caitlin Abbott. There are paper crane birds, menacing shadow puppets, walking bin bag monsters and many, many more. Jude Obermüller’s beguiling music and the production’s sound design complete the effect.
The children in the audience are mesmerised by every new creature. Younger children can giggle at the silly sounds, funny voices and spectacular moving shapes whilst older children can appreciate the costumes’ attention to detail and the scenes’ intricate choreography. We all share in the boy’s continued jeopardy: the creatures are always convincing enough to feel dangerous whilst being colourful enough to remind us we are still playing.
The really clever thing about this play, though – and the thing that makes it so compelling for children – is that each of the smaller monsters before the Jabberwock itself represents a typical infantile fear. The borogroves (Louise Farnall, Lia Lee and Matt Aldridge) - ‘all mimsy’ in Carroll’s poem - become a gaggle of female monsters wanting a kiss, suggesting the fear of amorous relationships, or of sexuality. The Bandersnatch, ‘frumious’ as ever as a sinister shadow puppet, removes the boy’s voice, suggesting the child’s fear of not being able to communicate.
In the boy’s climactic fight with the Jabberwock itself, he must use the strength his mother has taught him in order to overcome his ultimate fear: that of having to live without her. Here, as ever, The Jabberwocky provides a rich visual language and an exciting allegory that engages, challenges and entertains, whilst handling complex and emotionally difficult themes.