It’s hard not to like a show that contains the words diabolical and flibbertigibbet and poses questions like who was Albert Scratch and why was he always so bloody happy?
The Penny-Toy Man is quite the genre-bender. It’s a little bit horror, a little bit musical, and a little bit comedy. (Okay, it’s a lot horror.) And it’s a combination that works. When the comedy comes it’s welcome relief, the singing is good, and the horror is appropriately horrific.
The Laudanum Project, a trio of gentlemen determined to bring some macabre true stories to light, have dug up an extraordinarily bloody tale of possessed children, rivers of blood, and rotting corpses with this latest show. The year is 1884 and the East End of London is in the grip of something infernal. “The evil that men do is engraved in the cobblestones of the district.” The Penny-Toy man, Albert Scratch, whose creepy toy bats and crocodiles and spiders delight the children, is not who he appears to be and there is evil afoot (of a most diabolical kind).
The Penny-Toy Man is a one man show. Our narrator is Alphonse Cheese-Probert (Nick Ravenswood), accompanied by Heapus Maximus (Michael Colcheedos) on the keyboard. Ravenswood is a talented performer. He is a good singer and storyteller, but it’s his ability to layer nuances of meaning across a macabre grin that is most impressive. Quite simply, his face is mesmerizing. Ravenswood’s performance, however, would be greatly enhanced by better direction. The show is performed upstairs at the Retreat Hotel in Abbotsford, and while the creaking floorboards and Victorian surrounds are suitable backdrops, the one floor light and very limited stage space mean that the entire show is resting on that face, and it isn’t quite enough. After a while, despite the brilliant writing, the music and the movement get too repetitive. Ravenswood’s singing voice is fabulous, but the songs all have the same melody. And, unfortunately, despite Ravenswood’s lovely, melodic speaking voice, he does deliver the entire 55 minute piece in the same sing-song inflection, at break-neck speed. There are several moments begging for him to slow the pace right down, stop moving and just use that maniacal grin and those crazy eyes to scare the crap out of us. I have no doubt whatsoever he’s capable of it.
The stage make-up deserves special mention. It lends so much to the feel of the show and is truly wonderful in its detail. The lighting works well enough – it’s dark and spooky – but it could be vastly improved with even just one more floor light to add a bit of variation.
All things considered, the superb writing really does need to be supported with more light and shade across the rest of the production. Nevertheless, in essence, The Penny-Toy Man offers everything theatre of the macabre should – it’s spooky and intriguing and fun, full of unexpected images, ghoulish happenings and a bald man in a nightie called Alphonse with caked blood on his head and craziness in his eyes.
The Laudanum Project presents
The Penny-Toy Man
Venue: The Retreat Hotel | 226 Nicholson Street, Abbotsford, Melbourne
Date/Time: Monday 18th April, 8:00pm