Unhappy blend of melodrama and allegory: Southwark Playhouse’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice reviewed

6 March 2021

9:00 AM

6 March 2021

9:00 AM

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, until 14 March

Dear Tomorrow — Hope From Home, until 31 December

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a musical fantasy set in a Nordic town near the Arctic circle. Johan is a magician whose healing powers have won him the respect of his neighbours. But his rebellious daughter, Eva, has been expelled from school for scrawling ‘down with the patriarchy’ on a mirror. She’s also suspected of trying to sabotage a local factory that refines energy from the Northern Lights. The wicked factory owner, Fabian, is an emotional cripple who lives with his sick mother and rejects claims that the aurora is fading because too much energy has been extracted from it. If he continues to run the factory at full tilt, he may harm the atmosphere and destroy the town. This tangled set-up is complicated by a third element, a handsome youngster, Eric, who works for Johan as an apprentice and tries to woo Eva. But the prospect of romance unsettles her deeply. She calls Eric a ‘gobshite’ and orders him to clean the kitchen. ‘Get sweeping, mucky boots,’ she yells.

The show is an unhappy blend of melodrama and allegory. And it sets out to unify two entirely different epochs. The costumes belong to the 19th century and the social structures reflect the inequalities of a bygone age. Fabian and his mother dine at a great oak table attended by liveried servants. But the language and the narrative atmosphere belong to our own time. A teenager who gets into trouble at school for denouncing ‘the patriarchy’ is a contemporary tale. Yet even here the details sound false. A classroom activist punished for writing political graffiti on school property would be fêted by the community, not chastised. Likewise, the environmental concerns belong to the present day. The locals chatter superstitiously about ‘changes in the weather’ which they fear will lead to scourges and punishments from on high. They assume that human beings are wrong to exploit natural assets for their own advantage. ‘You gave us power which we abused,’ pleads one character, addressing mother Earth. ‘And you want revenge.’ This expresses a modern attitude towards nature: bewildered, self-lacerating and guilt-ridden.

In its final act the show moves away from melodrama and becomes a sci-fi spoof with elements of surrealism. A bizarre invasion of brooms is followed by the visitation of a scary monster who represents the natural world. The show’s virtues include a spirited cast and a medley of hummable tunes. But there’s far too much narrative clutter. Which story are we following? Fabian’s relationship with his ailing mum? The affair between feeble Eric and stroppy Eva? Or the townsfolks’ attempts to stop the factory from sucking too much juice from the aurora? More importantly, it’s unclear why we need an allegory to explain environmentalism. At present, the world’s energy policy is being directed by a teenager without a degree who didn’t go to school. That’s one of the strangest fairy tales in history. And it’s true.

Dear Tomorrow — Hope From Home is a series of filmed epistolary monologues. They come with an encouraging subtitle, ‘Letters of Hope in Uncertain Times’. The first letter is about the pandemic which the writer likens to an environmental catastrophe. ‘The Earth’s sacred lungs are on fire!’ Lockdown, she rejoices, is a welcome opportunity to ‘reconnect, recover and reorientate’, and ‘to take care of our bodies, ourselves, and each other’. She ends on a troubling note: ‘See. Breathe. Surrender,’ she orders. It’s not clear what ‘surrender’ means but it doesn’t sound terribly optimistic.

Much of the writing is bizarre. Some is impenetrable. A young British Muslim recites chunks of classical Arabic which the subtitles transliterate into English without offering a translation. Perhaps the director, Matthew Xia, flatteringly imagined that we all speak fluent Arabic. The character tells us a complicated story about his great-grandmother from whom, he says, he inherited his religion and his facial features. This globetrotting matriarch began life in the Middle East, moved to South Africa and then journeyed north to settle in Britain. He always felt glad that ‘one day I would bear her name and her nose and carry both across oceans and continents’. Strange phrasing. The poor chap is so steeped in the culture of division that he finds the night sky racist. ‘Even the stars are foreign to me now,’ he says, referring to the different appearance of constellations in the northern and southern hemispheres. They make him feel oppressed.

The script ends with a heartfelt refrain: ‘I don’t think hope is a good feeling.’ It’s a strange way to cheer everyone up.

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