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Piff the Magic Dragon: Last of the Magic Dragons
Published on Monday, 04 July 2011

5 stars

Marlborough Theatre (venue website)
8 May, 5:30pm-6:30pm, 9:00pm-10:00pm; 9 May, 5:40pm-6:40pm, 9:00pm-10:00pm; 6-7 May, 9:00pm-10:00pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Family-friendly. Suitable for all ages.

Eyes covered by a blindfold, I'm guided by unseen hands into an unknown space.  A man crosses my path, brushing his teeth; I can tell by the smell of peppermint. A cat wails below me as I hesitantly grope for my seat. And so I'm plunged into the heart of south London, on an ordinary Sunday morning at the centre of a fascinating world.

For that, the credit belongs to Louis de Bernières, who penned this script for Radio 3 back at the turn of the millennium.  But the emergent Bad Physics theatre company have made a clever choice: as a tale made up of short set-piece episodes, it leaves you plenty of mental space to enjoy their near-unique performance style. And it has the perfect mix of moods, swinging in a heartbeat from the vibrant clamour of a bustling market to private tales of loneliness, longing and loss.

As befits a piece written for radio, the voice work is superb throughout; the nine-member cast achieve two or three times that number of ages and accents, sometimes stereotyped but never resorting to parody. The transitions are slick, the pace is varied and crucially, the diction for the most part is clear. I especially looked forward to the surround-sound interventions of the play's surprising chorus, the jaded Cockney sparrows who nest in the suburban eaves.

But it's not just the sound that surrounds you.  Starting with that man brushing his teeth, each character comes with their own distinctive scent - the delicate rose of bubble-bath, or the sharp tang of vinegar.  It's a tactile experience, too: at one point a friendly dog brushed my trousers, but when I reached instinctively downwards, it was an actor's hair that met my outstretched fingers.

If you want to see how they're doing it all, you're welcome to lift your blindfold.  When you do, you'll find there's a whole alternative play for the sighted audience - with hints of costume, full-on gestures, and even a cluster of actors crouching down to play the part of a car. It's remarkable that it works, but it works all the same; one script, one set of voices and two completely different ways of enjoying it all.

And that, I think, is this play's unique genius. I know full well that they want me to wear the blindfold; but through their generous offer of something to watch, I learned for myself that it's best to choose the darkness. It wasn't long before I closed my eyes once more, and lost myself again amongst the sounds, smells and emotions of my privately-imagined world. I peeked from time to time - I just had to see the horse! - but as it turns out, my mind's eye was the best stage of all.

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