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The Pearl
Published on Thursday, 22 August 2013

4 stars

Pleasance Courtyard (venue website)
31 Jul, 1-12, 14-26 Aug, 12:30pm-1:40pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Recommended for age 12+ only.

In their creative new adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novella, youthful ensemble Dumbshow combine eye-catching physicality with some truly moving moments of storytelling. Relating the tale of an impoverished family who find they’re blessed with apparent riches, Dumbshow are a likeable crew, who quickly generate a genuine rapport with their audience. We’re welcomed into the theatre one by one, and there’s no dimming of the lights or musical fanfare before the entertainment begins; I could almost imagine we were just gathered on a windswept shore, in front of the ramshackle seafront buildings which make up the set.

The conceit behind this production is that we’re watching a group of Cornish beachcombers, who are re-enacting The Pearl using improvised props made from flotsam collected over the years.  At its best, it’s a visually glorious show – the scene where pearl diver Kino descends beneath the waves is a funny, clever, beautiful delight.  But when you’re deep in the grip of Steinbeck’s narrative, it’s rather too easy to forget the frame they’ve chosen to put it in, which meant that even scenes as magnificent as that one felt slightly at odds with the emotionally-charged plot.

Michael Bryher (as Kino) and Hester Bond (as Joanna, his wife) deliver fine performances throughout, which build and grow together into a heart-tugging, note-perfect finale.  Another stand-out for me was the chorus of pearl-traders conspiring against Kino, whose focused avarice was imaginatively captured by multiple sets of spectacles.  There’s a slight lull in the intensity part-way through, and a few of the incidental roles were more sketches than fully-developed characters, but overall it’s a finely-balanced production which keeps the audience both entertained and thoroughly engaged.

So I enjoyed it while I was watching, but I left with a nagging feeling that it hadn’t quite given me a moral or message to take away.  Ultimately, Steinbeck’s novella makes for an oddly-shaped piece of theatre.  It’s not Kino’s own greed which destroys him – as you’d expect from a classic tragedy – but rather the forces unleashed by a legitimate desire to preserve what’s rightfully his.  The director’s notes in the programme suggest they’ve approached it as an indictment of capitalism, but despite framing the story in a modern-day setting, I’m not convinced they’ve managed to draw a contemporary message out of Steinbeck’s plot.

So it’s not life-changing, but as a creative-yet-faithful adaptation of the novella, it’s hard to fault.  I loved the dance-like set-pieces, the characters and the caricatures, and the cheeky self-awareness built around the improvised nature of its props.  It’s a treat to see images so powerful created from such simple components – and you could say the same about the whole production, which constructs something clever and quirky on top of a thoroughly traditional play.  In the end, then, my best summary of The Pearl is that it’s simply a tale well told.

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