Though written in 1871, Edward Lear’s nonsense poem The Owl and the Pussycat reads as an ode to free love – a couple making it work despite differing backgrounds (and species), and ignoring heteronormative traditions (the pussycat, for instance, who is often assumed to be female, proposes to the owl). From the script to the set, Full House Theatre’s production captures the topsy-turvy, silly, and wonderfully weird world of Lear’s verse, whilst still espousing a very modern perspective, this time on family: gender and biology don’t matter, the show tells us, it’s love that really counts.
The Owl and the Pussycat has remained popular for almost 150 years, but though the motivation to adapt it has long existed, the task is not without struggle. Terry Jones of Monty Python fame complained about the nonsense words and lack of plot when trying to turn it into an opera: “I mean, the word ‘runcible’ – it doesn’t mean anything. I think nonsense should have some meaning… They just sail in a pea-green boat with plenty of money and honey, and they get married and dance by the light of the moon. The only drama is, ‘What shall we do for a ring?’ and that’s solved by having a wood in which a piggy-wig stood.” But these obstacles beget innovation: Jones ended up writing a prequel instead, exploring how this unlikely romance blossomed in the first place; Julia Donaldson and Charlotte Volke published a picturebook sequel; Beatrix Potter wrote a spin-off about Piggy-Wig. It seems quite appropriate that this downside-up poem inspires a sideways approach.
Full House Theatre’s answer is a detective story (an ingenious solution first utilised by A Thousand Cranes adaptation of Satoshi Kitamura’s picturebook Me and My Cat?) inspired by both The Owl and the Pussycat and Lear’s unfinished sequel The Children of the Owl and the Pussycat. When Jumblie (Jordan Ellaych) and Quangle Wangle Quee (Ben Hammond) find a baby Owly-cat (Harriet Forgan) all alone and wrapped in a £5 note, they welcome her into the family, but as she grows up, so different from the others with her fluffy forelegs, furry tail and feathery arm, her questions about where she came from turn into a hunt for answers.
Designer Sophia Lovell Smith’s set and sumptuous costumes find the balance between quirky and high quality, so though the characters live in a mixed-up world of random odds and ends (Quangle Wangle Quee, for instance, wears a kilt, boxer boots, and a flowery hat; the trio fish for their tea in a chest of drawers) in an ineffable way it does all make sense, when it could so easily have seemed like someone closed their eyes and pointed at random items in an old charity shop. The action is further elevated by composer Rebecca Applin’s exceptional music and songs, performed with impressive harmonies from the cast. In fact, it’s easy to imagine The Owl and the Pussycat finding a home on a West End stage.
The only issue, then, is that the source material – a nonsense poem full of gibberish words like meloobius and fizzgiggious and an absurd story – might not be to everyone’s taste. I imagine the world is split into Terry Joneses – those who find made-up words and a seemingly meaningless narrative tiresome and Edward Lears – those who revel in a bit of delicious silliness.
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