Review: THE TOYMAKER'S CHILD, Chickenshed Theatre

Chickenshed makes another Christmas show that does so much more than entertain

By: Dec. 08, 2023
Review: THE TOYMAKER'S CHILD, Chickenshed Theatre

Review: THE TOYMAKER'S CHILD, Chickenshed Theatre Few phrases chill the blood of a theatre reviewer like ‘A New Musical’. MT is so hard to get right that, even after years in development, starry casting and a lot of hard work, its alchemy is as likely to produce base metal as gold. But, every Christmas, Chickenshed assembles its vast tapestry of humanity and creates work that does so much more than deliver on its core mission ‘Theatre Changing Lives’ - it really, really entertains as a fine show should.

This year’s edition, The Toymaker’s Child, bears all the hallmarks of past successes. There’s a clear thread of 2023’s hot button issues running through its conception and execution - you can almost hear the kids’ suggestions being workshopped when AI plays a central role in the story. But there’s plenty of callbacks to old favourites too. The 3-D printed toy is brought to life by an faulty microchip, coded PIN:0cch10; there’s an Elsa and Anna vibe in the central relationship; and I caught a strong whiff of Sir Robert Helpmann’s unforgettable (plenty have tried and failed) Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in Demar Lambert’s seductive and scary Mr Cunning.  

The plot loosely follows the trajectory of Pinnochio, with the puppet (Courtney Dayes) learning about the temptations of the adult world as she understands that having feelings can be genuinely frightening but also gloriously fulfilling. She’s an awkward, at least at first, friend for Katy (Ace Bunting, a teenage actress with a fine singing voice) created by her toymaker father (Gabriel Palmer) after the loss of her mother sends her into something of a depression. 

The sentient toy goes viral (natch!) and then goes missing alongside Katy, with a price on her head, dodging dodgy characters in dodgy places.

Review: THE TOYMAKER'S CHILD, Chickenshed Theatre

It’s such fun! The idea of going to ‘unschool’ to unlearn stuff (bad grades are required by this version of UCAS) before entry to ‘Leisure Island’, a place that sounded a lot like Las Vegas to me, is something that would have pleased Lewis Carroll and Pablo Picasso. Breathless newscasters report in on the chase, allowing a little HIGNFY-style satire for the grown-ups and there’s a skating villain and a cat-like Kat who get their comeuppance for their avarice. There’s a nice little joke about noses too in reference to a singing alligator (not crocodile) in a sequined dress played with great warmth by Bethany Hamlin.

Chickenshed’s ethos is rooted in inclusion and they’re so good at it after 49 years (2024 is a big one!) that you barely notice their signers seamlessly integrated into the staging - that’s not actually fair, you do notice them, as they are essential to the show! Likewise, it feels entirely right that the vast stage (beautifully set by Andrew Caddies, creating a sense of mood and place pantos with ten times the budget would love to emulate) is intermittently filled by its students, a cavalcade of humanity playing a full role in the storytelling. It’s noticeable too, that some kids have wonderful distinctive singing voices - that made me wonder if that individuality is coached out of them once older and at more ‘conventional’ drama schools.

Dave Carey, who wrote the marvellous songs, so catchy they were being sung by kids behind me in the interval and played by a very young band, also wrote a book that engages all ages. He is supported by four directors (Michael Bossisse, Bethany Hamlin, Cara McInanny and Jonny Morton) and, of course, the massed ranks of the students, graduates and staff of this extraordinary enclave of creativity at the top end of the Piccadilly Line. 

Review: THE TOYMAKER'S CHILD, Chickenshed Theatre

I WhatsApped a friend on the way home (in reference to the extraordinary volume of supporters, individual and corporate, who literally keep the show on the road) and, reaching for a phrase to describe the impact of this company, I could only find ‘Happiness Factory’. That’s very much the case on both sides of the fourth wall.

The Toymaker’s Child is a great show produced by great people doing great work. To be touched by them for two delightful hours is to become a tiny bit greater yourself, almost by osmosis. Try The Happiness Factory - it manufactures the best cure invented for anything.     

The Toymaker's Child at Chickenshed Theatre until 13 January

Photos: Caz Dyer and Daniel Beacock