Mandrake’s Magnificent Machine.
16th – 18th December 2010.
Bradford Playhouse.

Reviewer – Sara Hill.

Mandrake’s Magnificent Machine was billed as the world’s first surrealist, steampunk, absurdist pantomime. Confused? At the very least you’re going to get an antidote to the normal Christmas panto, starring has-been celebrities and X-Factor drop outs, yes? Oh yes.

Steampunk is a word thought to have been coined by science fiction writer K. W. Jeter in 1987. He used it to describe works of ‘alternate history’ fiction he was writing at the time with the likes of Tim Powers and James P. Blaylock. Why am I telling you all this? Because I cannot believe that with such pedigree in its origins steampunk remains unknown. Plus there’s a lot of tea drinking, and I really like tea.

A work of steampunk is technically an alternate history or speculative fiction, with elements of sci-fi and fantasy, frequently set in Victorian England. Think zeppelins in the air, strange devices with typewriter keys doing impossible things and monocles; Jules Verne and H. G. Wells; burnished brass, cranking cogs and scalding steam. That’s steampunk, and with the British Steampunk Society in the audience in full costume, the Playhouse had a lot of expectations to live up to.

They didn’t make it easy for themselves either, because this was an extremely ambitious production, an original work mixing staple elements of pantomime with a fairy tale structure and live music. It makes my head spin just thinking about keeping all those plates up, and at times the production was a touch over-ambitious.

The story followed young Victorian inventor Mandrake Eldridge, whose magnificent machine accidentally opens a door to the enchanted world of Ephemera. There, along with cross-dressing sidekick Bob, he attempts to rescue the daughter of the evil Lord Rottingham. Needless to say, it’s not a simple mission and there is much hilarity en route, but as the performance may be reprised next year I shall shy away from further plot revelations.

The cast threw themselves into their parts with obvious relish. Their energy infected the audience and any self-conscious Britishness evaporated in a sing-a-long and a series of ‘they’re behind yous’. Special mention has to go to Waleed Khalid as Lord Rottingham, whose smarming and smirking pretence of obsequious hospitality at the outset oozed off the stage.

It was not without its flaws, of course, at times appearing a little rough around the edges and struggling to bring all of these elements together coherently. But these minor concerns did not detract from its jovial atmosphere and warm reception. If it does return next year, I’ll be grabbing a ticket.

The Bradford Playhouse first opened its doors in 1929 and was relaunched in 2009 as a multi-disciplinary community-led arts centre. With slogans such as ‘there is no wealth but the common wealth’ adorning their website and a stated wish to provide a collaborative space for the city, this is a place well worth supporting. Have a look at their upcoming events. I highly recommend Button Mash on 5th February – gaming heaven!

Posted in category: 2010 / INDEPENDENT / live / performance / review / Victorian

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