Bats Theatre
Sept 25-Oct 11 | Reviewed by Helen Sims

Mr Marmalade takes the imaginary life of a four year old named Lucy as its subject matter and uses its intersections with her ‘real’ life to provoke thought about the impacts of emotional deprivation and neglect on a mind being shaped by a bombardment of disturbing influences. The surreal world which Lucy inhabits, concocted by young playwright Noah Haidle, populated by friends and foes both real and imaginary, provides a dark comedy for The Moving Theatre Company to play in.

The ‘real’ plays out off stage – here director Sophie Roberts has made good use of the doors at the rear of the stage to show glimpses of Lucy’s babysitter and Mother (both played by Colleen Davis). The female role models in Lucy’s life are far more interested in alcohol, cigarettes and abusive men than they are in Lucy. The men (both played by Ryan O’Kane) are apathetic and absent. The lack of meaningful human interaction in Lucy’s life has led her to create Mr Marmalade, her imaginary friend who becomes far more like a foe.

Mr Marmalade unfolds himself through a window into Lucy’s world, usually as a result of an appointment set by his nervous and downtrodden personal assistant, Bradley. Aaron Cortesi as Mr Marmalade, in his old fashioned suit, dwarfs Lucy, played by the diminutive Brooke Williams. Lucy’s mistreatment has crossed over into her imaginary world – instead of a refuge it becomes an extension of the emotionally abusive situation she experiences at home. Mr Marmalade’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic and violent and their interactions become more reminiscent of situations of domestic violence than play.

Brighter moments for Lucy often occur in her conversations with Bradley, who is excellently portrayed by James Conway-Law. Unfortunately Bradley is also experiencing abuse at the hands of Mr M and so his time for cups and tea and chatter increasingly dry up.

Into this mix is deposited the suicidal little brother of the babysitter’s boyfriend, Larry (Byron Coll). At 5 he was the youngest suicide attempt in the whole of Jersey, yet he has an alarmingly winning smile. A friendship blossoms between him and Lucy, although it is not at all a smooth play-date despite his attempts to placate her. Lucy may be too far gone into the darkness of her imaginary world to appreciate the potential solace Larry represents in the real world…

Haidle’s premise invites us to reflect on a number of points – the over-stimulation of children; the shaping of identity, the dividing line between the real and the imaginary and the negative impacts of neglect. Yet the play never strays far away from surreal comedy. Roberts and her cast exploit the moments of dark hilarity with aplomb, highlighting the farcical nature of the children’s lives as well as the tragedy, particularly with the entry of Larry’s bright and bouncy imaginary friends, a cactus and a sunflower (again played by Davis and O’Kane).

Ideas are occasionally allowed to boil over – the most effective scenes are where adult behaviour is reflected through a child’s perspective. However, the psychological insight is not complete – this is no God Boy. A particularly garish moment in which Lucy enacts a Medea scene with ketchup points to excess and indulgence in the plot. It’s a frightening but ultimately hollow moment that risks undermining the delicate psyche that has been drawn in its heavy handedness.

I’m not sure if Haidle has managed to entirely delve into the compex emotional undercurrents he sets up at the beginning of the play. There’s a distasteful implication that neglectful solo mothering is endemic to divorce and the working classes.

There is, a long history of literature that marries the anxieties of the adult world and the phantasms of childhood daydreams, most famous of which is Lewis Carrol’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Whilst this is wonderfully surreal, and is aided by the excellent performances and design, Mr. Haidle has invited us down a rabbit hole that really leads nowhere. Excesses of plot strike a sour note in what otherwise would be a sweet confection. However, the style of a young writer is a good fit for this young company.