Excitement and anticipation reverberate throughout the ancient abbey buildings of Abingdon’s Unicorn Theatre this week as they play host to the world premiere of Studio Theatre Club’s sell-out original adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s “Hogfather”, a firm fan favourite in the Discworld canon. For the uninitiated inhabitants of our Roundworld this is a fantasy universe unlike any other. Bumbling wizards rub shoulder blades with the black robed Death (a uniquely inquisitive anthropomorphic personification) and each novel is liberally daubed with expertly crafted satirical parodies of our customs, scientific knowledge, history and observations on the human condition. Through the use of various ingenious plot devices and technology, Stephen Briggs has respectfully retained the essential narrative elements in his dramatisation of an intricate story.
Hogswatch is almost upon us and across the Discworld, children everywhere are eagerly hanging their stockings with care, but the Auditors of Reality are Hell-bent on facilitating the assassination of the Hogfather before he can mount his wild-boar-driven sleigh. Jonathan Teatime (“it’s pronounced Teh-ah-tim-eh”) is deemed to be the man for the job, successfully shaking the world to its thaumatological core, but Death leaps in to action with a “HO. HO. HO.” aiming to save the day with the help of his semi-mortal granddaughter, Susan Sto Helit…
Scenographically, there are so many elements to this production and its success is due in no small part to accomplished direction and Francesca Richards for her unfailingly smooth stage management. The lighting, sound and screen teams are also to be congratulated for their timing and ability to perfectly blend voice-over, location titles and suitably atmospheric effects. The costumes shine, quite literally in the case of Ridcully’s robe which glisters with a practically perceptible “glingle” of its own!
The large cast is handled with effortless versatility by the talented members of the STC, each doubled role is freshly spun and even the smaller parts are as genuine as the leading protagonists. The show opens with a rabble of tuneful Hogswatch carollers, which immediately instils a festive feeling on the audience; I was half tempted to join in but managed to resist the urge!
Sarah Wright is suitably strong-willed as Susan, maintaining the character’s sarcastic determination throughout the show. Bilious (The Oh God of Hangovers) is superbly rendered with lumbering, head clutching hilarity by Jon Shepherd, and paired with the cute ineptitude of Ann Domoney as Violet the tooth fairy. Voice-overs are utilised to great effect, notably by Mike MacDonald as Death and Charlie Vicary as Hex (the Unseen University’s Thinking Machine). The former is particularly clever as it lends an air of omnipresent immortality to the character in addition to emphasising the booming cadence of Death’s speech. Stephen Briggs’ acting as Death is seamlessly integrated with Mike’s voice-over, creating an apt suspension of disbelief. Ben Winters’ portrayal of Death’s butler, Albert is a charmingly human contradiction to this.
Teatime the assassin is a complex individual, but David Robertson handles him confidently with a psychopathic titter and unnaturally broken mannerisms. He is supported well by the street-smart Chickenwire (Val Shelley), Ben Morel-Allen as a gangling Medium Dave, and the brilliantly vacant Banjo (Matt Hutchinson). In addition to offering a soaring descant in the choir, Michelle Chew amusingly provides helpful anecdotal asides in her role as the narrator. The three Auditors of Reality perform impressively as a unit, and Lindsay Rolland is also cherubic as Twyla; complete with an audible “pop” as the sucked thumb leaves her mouth (in delightful homage to the original text). Matt Kirk is a bombastic self-assured Archchancellor Ridcully, countered affably by the hesitant intelligence of Ponder Stibbons (Ross McGookin). I also particularly enjoyed watching Jamie Crowther (as Nobby Nobbs) discussing his unwanted Hogswatch gifts.
If you have not yet read any of Terry Pratchett’s books I urge you to add a couple to your Hogswatch list and rectify the situation immediately. Those who are lucky enough to have secured tickets to see “Hogfather”, (which were snapped up within an entirely unprecedented 36 hours of going on sale) are in for an absolute blast of an evening. Leave the dried frog pills at home but be sure to keep your eyes peeled for plier wielding tooth fairies while grinning from ear to ear!
“AND NOW THERE REMAINS ONLY ONE FINAL QUESTION, he said. He raised his hands, and seemed to grow. Light flared in his eye sockets. When he spoke next, avalanches fell in the mountains. HAVE YOU BEEN NAUGHTY…OR NICE? HO. HO. HO.”