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Spoken Mirror’s There’s a Monster in the Lake marked my third visit to the underground Vaults below Waterloo station, and turned out to be further proof – if proof were needed – of the versatility of this unconventional performance space. This time the audience venture upstairs to The Crescent, an attic-like room accessed via a corridor playing home to some sinister disembodied mannequins’ legs and a scattering of assorted scenery from past productions.
In The Crescent itself, the stage is set for a show that moves from whimsical to surreal and back again, pleasantly pulling us along with it. To tell the tale of Kazek – an elderly man in a stern and stark care facility – and his daughters Mari and Esme (one beleaguered yet fiercely devoted to her father, the other more open to his flights of fancy), the ragtag company escort us through an eerie, enchanted woodland filled with eccentric characters and out the other side. We meet a wolf (fixated on his health and safety guidebook) who used to guide young girls to their grannies’ houses but stopped on being told it was sexist, and dance with the Devil, while Kazek applies for the competitive – and possibly imaginary – position of King of the Woods.
The whole thing is part fairy-story, part folk-tale, with a distinct taste of Anthony Neilson’s celebrated The Wonderful World of Dissocia. Like its Fringe hit predecessor, it somewhat surprisingly plumbs emotional depths as we learn more about its protagonists: in this case Kazek and his offspring. It transpires that ‘There’s a Monster in the Lake’ is also the title of a story told to Mari and Esme by their dad when they were children, lending an air of wistful reminiscence to proceedings and giving the writer and performers space to examine the different ways people grow up and move beyond the escapist realm of fantasy – or fail to, as the case may be.
Wizened yet flighty Kazek is a Peter Pan-like figure, clinging to dreams of ruling at the side of the woods’ seductive queen while still entranced by his daughter’s balletic dancing. Young playwright Tallulah Brown’s sparky, winning script leaves room for some beautiful singing from a quartet stationed behind the seating bank, crooning lullabies and mesmerising layered harmonies to bookend scenes and conjure an intimate yet otherworldly atmosphere. We can never be sure whether what we are presented with on stage is really happening, or is just a figment of Kazek and Esme’s imaginations, though a potential clue comes when Mari claims to hear strains of song from deep within the woods.
Inevitably, much of the buzz around this show has been due to the presence of Cressida Bonas in the cast – she displays a fun light touch as the Cockney Wolf, skilfully navigating the lion’s share of the comedic lines and seamlessly integrating into the company, but the three leads (Zoe Stevens, Zena Carswell and Florence Keith-Roach) certainly make us empathise more and have greater scope to delve into the behaviour of their characters. An award for stand-out performer would have to go to Carswell, who as Mari (the more harangued yet practical of the two siblings) paints an always-believable picture of a worried but realistic daughter and hits some great heights of pathos in her interactions with Kazek’s nurse (Tara Postma, doubling as the Queen) and her sister Esme (the effervescent and earnest Keith-Roach) in particular. The cast is rounded out by Hugo Nicholson as a seemingly hypochondriac Devil retaining his wily charm despite near-constant headaches, and everyone on stage showcases skilful physicality and confidence in creating such wacky characters, helped along by director Lily Ashley. The decision to cast a young actress (Zoe Stevens) as the central old man does make you wonder if it would have been more emotionally impactful to have a male actor play the part, but she manages to capture Kazek’s vivacity mixed with frailty very well and is best of all in the care home scenes that bring the old man’s relationship with his daughters to the fore.
A rarity in the often-bloated world of theatre, There’s a Monster in the Lake feels like a piece that could easily be expanded and lengthened – as it is, the show is a touching theatrical tidbit: an hour in the company of an aging adventurer whose fiery imagination illuminates the Waterloo Vaults and provides a stirring opening to this year’s Vault Festival.
There’s a Monster in the Lake returns to the Vaults Feb 11-15. Tickets are £13.50.