Struggling to cope with a devastating loss, Ellie retreats into a fantasy world – imagining herself as superhero Blaze, on a mission to rescue her idol Silver from the clutches of Doctor Oblivion. But what happens when her imagination begins to take control, and crosses over into real life? With I Am Beast, Sparkle and Dark have produced a dazzling theatrical spectacle, with a comic book aesthetic, a tender story, and their trademark life-size puppetry.
The visual style is beautifully realised: neon lights and strong primary colours light up screens like they are comic strip-panels, which feature, among other characters, a tabloid news broadcaster and a corrupt mayor. Cartoon cityscapes are projected onto plain white backdrops that double as the mundane family home; the swirling lights that animate the chase sequences are great fun, and the choreography of the fights is wonderful, especially during the filmic slow motion moments. The switches between the two worlds are slick and the live music accompaniment by Laurence Illsley plays a key role in maintaining the atmosphere.
Lizzie Muncey is superb as Ellie, capturing a mix of fear, confusion and bravery. Ellie is portrayed as an ordinary girl, simply unable to come to terms with bereavement; I like the fact that there are no extra issues tacked on, which makes her easy to relate to. Her father, played by Gilbert Taylor, is a study in repressed grief, trying to deal with exactly the same feelings as Ellie in a different way. Their failure to communicate, and Ellie’s flight into fantasy, are very natural and unforced.
Louise Ashton’s script resists over-complicating the narrative. While the links between Ellie’s real life and fantasy are clear, they are not in-your-face obvious; I enjoyed a particularly telling scene in Ellie’s fantasy life between her and Todd the tramp.
Sparkle and Dark are known for their puppetry – yet in this production, the puppet is at the service of the story and not the main feature. But that just makes the Beast even more effective when it appears: it has the right degree of menace, while also appearing to be a teenager. When it jumps onto the bed it is properly scary, the stuff of childhood nightmares! However, it does take three puppeteers to work the Beast, and while their movement around the stage is fluid and exciting they sometimes obscure the puppet. I was sitting at the end of a row near the front, and when the Beast moved away from me I could only see the puppeteers’ backs.
So there is a little way to go before the potential is fully realised, but this production is already a directorial triumph for Shelly Knowles-Dixon. It’s aimed squarely at the teenager or young adult who enjoys comic books or the Marvel movies (and the teenager who accompanied me duly loved it), but it’s great fun too for anyone who simply loves a first-class theatrical experience.