Wonder Boy, Bristol Old Vic

THERE are so many good causes associated with the writing, production and presentation of this play that a desire to support them can take over your emotions. leaving you almost incapable of looking at the production as a piece of theatre.

As someone who at a young age spent hours rolling my Rs in order to correct an inability to say the letter, I have great sympathy with anyone, like Sonny, with any form of speech impediment. There is an inbred shame at having such an impediment, a feeling that you are personally responsible for having this problem.

In this his first play, Ross Willis, with the deeply-committed backing of director Sally Cookson, get right into the mind and soul of 12-year-old Sonny as he faces the fears thrown up by starting at a new school.

We discover that he has invented an imaginary comic book friend Captain Chatter (a lovely piece of mimed acting by Ramesh Meyyappan) to help him cope with life. He is bowled over by the ebullient fellow pupil Roshi (Juliet Agnes),who offers him genuine friendship, deeply suspicious of forward-thinking teacher Wainwright (Amanda Lawrence), and clashes head on with the ambitious, everything-must-be-done-by-the-book, headmistress (Jenny Fitzpatrick).

The way in which these relationships develop, one minute close, the next violently opposed, plus the introduction of Sony’s dead mother (Jenny Fitzpatrick), opens up Sonny’s character as vividly as if his body had been opened by a surgeon’s knife. It would have been so easy for Raphel Famotibe to overplay his hand as Sonny lurches from broad comedy to high drama, but showing admirable control this young actor was always charge of the character.

There was a lovely sympathetic relationship with Roshi, which also provided excellent moments of comedy.  There were shades of radio comedian Leon Cortez, whose speciality was potted versions of Shakespeare plays, as Juliet Angus all but stopped the show with her modern schoolgirls interpretation of Hamlet – a play that had sent Sonny into a state of panic when cast by the bullying headmistress as a messenger in the school production.

The sequence with his dead mother, in which we discover his shame at not being able to find the words to prevent her death, the cause of his stammer, was less satisfying, as reality, symbolism and mime all piled in on top of one another. All of this was played out on an expertly designed and lit set, with a staircase stage right to provide variations in hight, and ideally chosen props and stage dressing that appeared and disappeared as if they were in a magician’s hands. At the rear was a video screen that inventively displayed every word of dialogue spoken, which opens the play up fully to anyone with any hearing impediment.

When you add in music and sound to help heighten moments of tension and/or fun and you have a production team determined, and capable of, using most of the latest tools available to them.

Played for an hour and a half without an interval, there were moments when the play loses its way, but the fascinating battle for Sonny’s soul and rid him of the dreaded stammer which is preventing him fully integrating with friends and foe and reaching his full potential is never far away, holding you like a rabbit caught in a car’s headlights, unable to take your eyes off the action on stage.


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