The Southwark Playhouse is a fantastic venue, almost like an extension of its neighbour, the London Dungeon, with exposed brickwork, red satin drapery and the trains rumbling overhead.
For this production, one enters the auditorium to the atmospheric sound of lapping water. Garance Maneur’s striking set dominates the space. An ingenious concoction, it depicts an old pier which, in the designer’s words, is intended to “represent the element of transition between the river and the land”. Marneur certainly achieves his aim: as the action ensues, the set almost becomes a character in its own right, adapting fluidly to the fast-paced action of the piece.
My memories of Huckleberry Finn are happy childhood ones. I read Mark Twain’s novels at an early age and spent many a contented tea-time enjoying episodes of the Canadian 1980s television series starring Ian Tracey and Sammy Snyders. What I failed to acknowledge as a young child were Twain’s vital messages and themes. In the novel, his criticism of entrenched discriminatory attitudes and the powerful undercurrent of racism and slavery flow as surely beneath the depiction of romantic, idyllic river-life as the makeshift raft which carries fugitives Huck and Jim on their journey down the Mississippi river.
This adaption does not fail to bring to life the colourful descriptions of people, places and outlandish events its source is noted for. Graeme Dalling’s Huck and Joe Speare’s Jim perfectly embody Twain’s enduring images of escape and liberty as Jim attempts to free himself from slavery, and Huck shuns the boring confinement of “civilised life”. Whilst this Huck is very believable as a young innocent going through all the pains and dilemmas of becoming a man in a morally flawed society, he is just too clean-cut to be a real runaway urchin. Speare’s performance is sensitive and flawless, a deeply human, father-like portrayal of a man who faces an agonisingly uncertain future. Of the supporting cast, it is Jos Vantyler who really shines as Tom Sawyer and a variety of other minor characters, moulding himself effortlessly with the changing scenery.
Back in 1855, when his novel was published, Twain jovially threatened anyone that tried to find a plot in it, with death. Unfortunately, this production remains true to the original in this sense too. Whilst the desire to bring Twain’s narrative to the stage by mimicking his written style is admirable, I doubt anybody without prior knowledge of the novel would know what was going on most of the time. Many great novels pride themselves on being ‘plotless’ but I am not sure such a medium translates as well to the stage. I would have liked to have seen some less rambling depictions of certain episodes, perhaps even with some narration to connect and explain them.