JESS HOWLEY-WELLS reviews The Terrible Infants at Wilton Music Hall.

Even before theatre company Les Enfants Terribles’ The Terrible Infants has started, their striking mastery of atmosphere is already clear – all credit to the eerily vast Wilton Music Hall and the company’s ingenious set, costume and puppet designer Samuel Wyer. Amid a mess of dustsheets, lightbulbs and smoke, five phenomenal talents bring to life the unfortunate tales of seven young unfortunates. The magic of the piece lies in its very dereliction; through the dismal world, the beauty of the storytelling shines tenfold.

Each child’s tale is, as per fairy-tale tradition, laden with moralistic gravity – take Finbar who, for his whole life, has wished he were a fish. When presented with the opportunity to make a wish, he seizes it and meets a gruesome end – on the plates of his parents. Or Beatrice, who talks so much that bees are attracted to the hum of her voice and build a hive around her head – a story beautifully narrated by a recording of Judi Dench. Tying all of these stories together is that of Tilly, the girl who tells tall tales. The fragmentation of the stories, and the twisted takes on moral codes results in a delicious cocktail of Wes Anderson, Lemony Snicket and Roald Dahl. It is in equal parts impish, gleeful and damning. As a result, the production could benefit, perhaps, from omitting the interval and powering through the tales in one fell swoop – the pace achieved by the endless saxophoning, dancing and frolicking is compelling enough.

Photo courtesy of Rah Petherbridge.

It is clear from the off that this is a play in the bones, hearts and souls of the performers; this production is a revival, ten years after its debut, and they clearly know what they are doing. Oliver Lansley, writer, director and star of the piece is the perfect master of ceremonies – camp, cruel and oozing with vaudeville flair. He is accompanied by Serena Manteghi, whose manner swings mischievously between brattish and brutish as fits, as well as puppeteers and musicians Richard Booth, Christo Squier and Rebecca Bainbridge who fill the room with harmonious discord. They are a Swiss army knife of theatrical skill.

Richard Booth in The Terrible Infants. Photo courtesy of Rah Petherbridge.

Truly though, the lasting impression is of the puppets and the set on which they are drawn to life. It is rare to sit among a (mostly adult, though a few children were accompanied by parents) audience so completely enrapt; gasps and exclamations of ‘oh my god’ could be heard throughout the entire scene depicting Finbar exploring his new ocean home. A canopy of ripped cellophane on a fish net appears in the blink of an eye, and he swims through it, his actions are so brilliantly executed and humanly characterised, chasing a bubble being contact-juggled across the stage by Squire. This episode where the inanimate is so organically animated epitomises what is magical about The Terrible Infants. As the programme so rightly says, it is a show for ‘big kids and small grown ups’ – and it is not to be missed.

Les Enfants Terribles’ The Terrible Infants is running at Wilton Music Hall until October 28th. Find more information here.

Featured image courtesy of The Corner Shop.