Adapted from the award winning novel by David Almond this is a play that will appeal to audiences of all ages: this modern children's classic holds a special fascination for young and old alike in a plot that combines a movingly realistic portrayal of family life with elements of the supernatural.
When a move to a new house coincides with his baby sister's illness, Michael's world seems suddenly lonely and uncertain. Then, one Sunday afternoon, whilst exploring the battered old garage, Michael discovers a 'strange creature' who needs his help to survive. With his new friend Mina, Michael nourishes Skellig back to health, while his baby sister languishes in the hospital. But Skellig is far more than he at first appears, and through this magical encounter Michael's world changes forever.
We would recommend that this production is suitable for children of age 10 and above, or younger at the parents' discretion.
Review by Chris Arnot
Earlsdon moves to Tyneside for this adaptation of David Almond’s novel, written for children yet engagingly thought-provoking for adults.
The setting is a somewhat dilapidated house in or around Newcastle. We know that because of the accents – a pleasantly lilting Geordie in all cases. What’s more, Dad is sporting a black and white striped football shirt and reading the back page of the Newcastle Chronicle while washing down his Chinese take-away with Newcastle Brown Ale. In the rare moments, that is, when he’s not striving to transform the tip that he and Mum have just purchased into a suburban palace worthy of Homes and Gardens.
More realistically, he wants to make it a safe haven for the growing family. His son Michael, the central character, is to have a baby sister. Unfortunately, she arrives somewhat earlier than expected and her consequent fragile state of health is at the heart of a play that touches on profound issues, such as the evolution of mankind, without detracting from the pace of an absorbing story.
The garage adjoining the house makes my shed seem almost orderly by comparison. Amid the stinking piles of rubbish in there, Michael makes a shocking discovery. What appears at first to be an old man is squatting among the bags and boxes. Is he the former ageing resident who allowed this place to go to rack and ruin?
Under his coat are strangely protruding shoulder blades. Are they wings? Is this some strange kind of angel? The angel of death, perhaps, coming for his baby sister.
Despite his forebodings, Michael befriends the creaking Skellig, bringing aspirin for his aching bones, the remains of Chinese take-aways and bottles of brown ale. “The sweetest of nectars,” the “old man” calls it. Well, sweet anyway.
Though somewhat ungracious at first, Skellig is transformed as this entrancing tale goes on. Helped by Emma Withers’ evocative and adaptive set, director Nicol Cortese brings the best out of a cast that bestrides the generations.
As Michael, Harry Holles engagingly captures the awkwardness of a sensitive lad on the cusp of adolescence. His school-mates, played by Reuben O’Connell and James Smith, are equally impressive. So too is Georgia Kelly, the girl next door, who further fires Michael’s already fevered imagination with her love of birds and the works of William Blake.
Pete Gillam and Lucy Hayton subtly portray the strains of parents trying to hold it together in a shambolic house with a baby in a critical condition and a son they love deeply.
An adaptive support cast includes Criterion old-stagers Pete Bagley and Jean Firth, as well as Gennie Holmes effortlessly switching from teacher to nurse to narrator.
This is a play for all ages performed by a cast of all ages. It is magical, enchanting and touching. Deeply so at times.
What more could you want from a night at the theatre?
A drink afterwards, perhaps. Think I’ll pass on the Newcastle Brown if you don’t mind.
Review By Nick Le Mesurier
Skellig is a tale full of wonder: deceptively simple, it is rich with meaning and full of hope.
The story centres on the eponymous anti-hero, Skellig, who never declares who or what he is. Is he a tramp or is he an angel? If the latter, an angel of what? He looks more like an emaciated old tramp hiding at the back of Michael’s tumble-down garage. But how has he got there? What does he do? Where does he come from? What does he want? “I am nothing,” he says. All we know of him is that he likes “27 and 53”, items off a Chinese take-away menu, and a drop of Newcastle Brown. Yet he magically transforms the lives of those around him, not least Michael’s new-born sister who is born with a heart complaint and requires emergency surgery to survive.
If this sounds confusing, believe me it is all resolved in a most beautiful way. This is a story in which imagination overcomes scepticism. It takes a young person’s vision to make us see what is really there.
I particularly liked Nicol Cortese’s direction, which has members of the cast step seamlessly out of character to narrate the story. Scenes swirl effortlessly into each other in a brilliant display of stage craft, yet we never lose sight of the action.
The quality of acting is superb throughout. Harry Holles is so endearing as the teenage Michael, whose heart is touched by Skellig. Chris Firth plays Skellig as a dark character, troubled by arthritis, poverty and hunger, seemingly misanthropic, but who is eventually stirred by acts of kindness to work his magic to save Michael’s sister. Then there is Mina (Georgia Kelly), a home-schooled free-thinking child of nature who loves birds and quotes William Blake, who opens the doors of perception to Michael, showing him the beauty of the natural world and introducing him to the marvellous theory of evolution. It is that strange theory which is at the heart of the play and which offers hope that all things will be transformed for the better.
Is Skellig a product of evolution, or is he a creature from another world, maybe even a fallen angel? If so, does he represent the past or the future? We don’t know, and that is the mystery which binds this play together. All we do know is that wherever we are going, love will help us to get there intact. It’s not a silly sentiment.
"We are extraordinary,” says Mina. Here at the Criterion for a couple of hours we can believe we truly are.
Skellig is at the Criterion until Saturday May 13.
Running time 2 hours. (Ends approx. 9.30p.m.)