Little ones who love their favourite toys will hold onto them a little tighter after watching Fluff, lest they fall into the hands of the Gingham family. The trio ‘rescue’ lost toys from around the world, led by matriarch Joan (Christine Johnson), an exaggerated Jackie-O type who peculiarly flits between Margaret Thatcher-plumminess, crazed vocal sounds and snippets of song. But once the toys are brought back to their sorting room of odd-size boxes, they are at risk of being thrown around and smacked with a spatula. It’s not really the stuff of an “off-the wall” comedy for children, many of whom would find this treatment of toys unforgivable at best, and horrifying at worst – the whole production has an unnerving quality, like Watch With Mother meets The Twilight Zone.
The show’s concept is great – children the world over would be curious (and comforted) to know what happens to lost toys, and the secret life of toys has obviously been explored to huge success in the past. But if Fluff is like Disney’s Toy Story, we find ourselves not in the shelter of Andy’s bedroom, but under the bed of his unpleasant neighbour Sid, alongside all his mistreated toys. Perhaps it also doesn’t help that the toys are inanimate – we can’t invest in them the same way we would a puppet, but we can imagine how it would feel if our own toys were treated similarly.
My quibbles with the production aren’t just based on sentimentality about the treatment of toys, but take issue with the wider disregard of the audience’s needs. It’s unclear what story the title refers to, as the action veers between a few different focuses – first, it revolves around rehousing the lost toys, then on giving each of them a ‘sound’, then on trying to make each of them go to sleep. It’s repetitive and consequently over-long: for each of ten toys we see the tragic tale of how they were lost projected on a screen, watch as they are allocated a sound by Joan and a dance by Betsy (Lisa O’Neill) and placed into bed; the audience then have to go through, one-by-one, indicating which toy they think has woken up, and watch as, one-by-one, they are sent back to sleep. It doesn’t help that nothing is ever explained – perhaps this is meant to be part of the show’s wacky charm, but it’s difficult to invest in giving the toys sounds when you have no idea why it’s happening. The interaction also falls slightly flat – though the audience enthusiastically make noises into Joan’s microphone, it’s clear many aren’t sure exactly what they’re participating in.
In fact, the most successful moments are in the first five minutes, when a silent but facially-expressive DJ G (Peter Nelson) is alone on stage, accidentally hoovering up his tie as he tidies the beds, and showing off everything his looping kit can do. It’s silly and fun, but without the unsettling undertones felt throughout the rest of the play.
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