The Iron Man, at the Unicorn Theatre (review)

“The Iron Man came to the top of the cliff. How far had he walked? Nobody knows. Where did he come from? Nobody knows. How was he made? Nobody knows. Taller than a house the Iron Man stood at the top of the cliff, at the very brink, in the darkness.”

Ted Hughes’ 1968 novel The Iron Man is currently being brought to life at the Unicorn Theatre, and it is a delightful experience for all ages.  The quote above starts it all off, the voiceover provided perfectly by Nima Taleghani.  A huge man made of cardboard is the only thing on stage, its chest piece used as the screen for shadow puppetry. Then he falls with a crash, falling off the cliff, into pieces.  He is gradually pieced back together and then starts to walk, wobbly at first, his eyes glowing.

The Iron Man survives by eating all the metal farm machinery which he finds. In order to stop him, the farmers dig a big hole in the ground and cover it with a net as a trap. A local boy lures the Iron Man to the hole, and the Iron Man is buried alive down there.  Some time later he bursts out of there, much to the surprise of some jolly singing picnickers, and the boy realises that another solution must be found. He leads him to a scrap yard, heaven for the Iron Man.  He may eat as much metal as he likes, as long as he stops eating the farm machinery. The Iron Man’s glowing eyes change colour as if to denote the change of emotion, of someone having shown kindess to him.

We then meet the enemy of the piece, which first looks like a speck in the sky. They dub it a space bat angel dragon, and it’s a supernatural being the size of Australia which comes crashing to earth, demanding to be fed.  The boy goes to the Iron Man for help, and the Iron Man challenges the space lizard to a test of strength, one that might destroy the world. Or it might turn the Iron Man into a hero…

Matthew Robins is the man behind it all, the director and designer, puppet maker and animator. His projects usually combine the different disciplines of all of these, and they go together beautifully. The back of the stage becomes a screen for the charming illustrated animations; the music is atmospheric; the three puppeteers move the intricate and ingenious puppets around skilfully and with great personality.  The staging is really effective, for instance when there is complete darkness apart from the headlights of the farmers’ trucks and diggers. There is a lovely puppet of a fox and the houses of the village are made out of paper-cut cardboard and lit with simple light bulbs.  As the story is told we encounter smaller versions of the Iron Man. Some are made of cardboard, the one, crucially, who takes part in the test of strength, is made of metal.  It is captivating to see real flames licking up from the floor, and the iron Iron Man placed bravely on top of them.

The last view we have is a scene constructed by the puppeteers of mechanical planets revolving around the centrepiece, with paper shades throwing shadows around the room. It is touchingly beautiful. The Iron Man is a fantastical story and the magic is fully retained with this production. The theatre was full of children from quite young upwards, yet even my pre-teenage daughter was entranced by it and so was I.  I asked my children for two words to describe it.  They gave me ‘creative’ and ‘different’; and ‘outstanding’ and ‘eye-popping’.  This is definitely a show to catch if you can.

We attended The Iron Man on press tickets.  The Iron Man plays at the Unicorn Theatre until 5th March but tickets are very limited. For more information about Matthew Robins, see his website at sadlucy.com.

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