Unicorn Theatre, Abingdon
Opened 15 November, 1995

After twelve years and some sixteen titles, Terry Pratchett's "Discworld" books now regularly garner a slew of broadsheet reviews, many of which begin along the lines of "Not many broadsheet papers review Terry Pratchett...". Stephen Briggs's fine adaptation of the latest novel Maskerade comes barely a week after the book's publication, and is a measure of Pratchett's confidence in Briggs and the Studio Theatre Club, whose fifth Discworld play this is.

The humour of the quasi-medieval Discworld rests on its recognisable similarities to our own; in this case, the plot concerns a white-masked phantom who haunts the city of Ankh-Morpork's opera house, leaving sinister notes in impeccable copperplate (as the Director of Music notes, "What sort of person writes maniacal laughter?") and not a few corpses in his wake.
Gaston Leroux would recognise his original story, and would probably be too busy giggling to object to its being mercilessly parodied right from the moment when one character glances up at the huge chandelier and remarks, "And that's an accident waiting to happen if ever I saw one." The lampooning also takes in the Lon Chaney silent movie and, of course, Andrew Lloyd Webber's stage musical; here, the opera house's odd-job man Walter Plinge (Nigel Tait) is distinctly reminiscent of Webber's original Phantom Michael Crawford, albeit in his earlier incarnation as Frank Spencer.

For some time Pratchett was routinely compared to Hitchhiker's Guide-era Douglas Adams. However, whereas Adams felt no compunction about taking a couple of chapters to set up a contrived joke, Pratchett can get to the point in two or three lines. This makes for eminently speakable dialogue, to which Briggs's adaptation and most of the performances do full justice. The only real hints of amateur-dramatic clunkiness are in the sometimes clumsy changes of scene and lighting effects, but this is a technically ambitious show given the Unicorn's resources: it includes both live and recorded music, projections and puppetry.

Laura Ridout and Judith Leonard make a strong double-act as staple Pratchett characters Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, the two rural witches who go through the backstage politicking like a dose of salts. Sharon Wood is delightful as Agnes (alias Perdita), the new chorus singer who, uniquely in the delusion-fuelled world of opera, sees only what is actually happening. But, amongst a cast of 25, the laurels go to Stephen Briggs himself as director of music Salzella. The character gets most of the best deadpan one-liners, which Briggs delivers stony-faced; his protracted, operatic death is simply a treat.

The Discworld series has matured immeasurably since its beginnings in broad fantasy parody, and Pratchett is now rightly recognised as one of the great current literary humorists. With the publication next year of four of Briggs' stage adaptations, it cannot be long before major-league theatre wakes up to the enormous potential that nestles here.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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