Lilly Through The Dark @ Bedlam Theatre, Edinburgh

directed by
Edward Wren
The world of Tim Burton is the one that springs most readily to mind during the opening minutes of the River Peoples gothic-tinged fairy story.

The performers have whitened faces and the women sport Helena Bonham Carter hair, while the tale being told is a mixture of the moving and the macabre.

After the death of her father, young Lilly – distraught, grieving and missing him too much to continue on her own – journeys into the treacherous Deadlands in order to be reunited with him.
There she meets various characters, some more sinister than others: a boatman assigned to take her across the black river to the world of the dead, a gatherer of memories, a gatekeeper called Rotten Pockets and two hanged men who, in this particular world, are what counts as comic relief.

As well as Burton’s oeuvre, Lillys journey is reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland or 1980s cult film Labyrinth. At the heart of Lilly Through the Dark is a quest narrative that sees a young girl pitched into a dark and hostile land but the story also borrows heavily from folk tales and fables. It also contains a rather raw and poignant exploration of grief and, in particular, of the loss of parent (something of a recurring theme at this years Fringe).

As she ventures further into this other-world, Lillys memories of her fathers final slide into sickness begin to fade and she is actually forced to part with one small but precious recollection of him in order to go further into the land of the dead. The conclusion is bittersweet in the extreme: even if Lilly returns to the world of the living, she will be going back into that world alone and will have to embark on the slow process of coming to terms with her loss, of living her life without her father.

For a Fringe production its admirably aesthetically cohesive and very visually inventive. The piece is full of thoughtful little details. While Lillys bug-eyed puppet is rather expressive, the one representing her father is a white and faceless thing, which is both unsettling and highlights his increasing distance from her. A pair of dangling corpses somehow manages to be simultaneously grotesque and completely over the top, yet genuinely amusing, providing a welcome piercing to the slightly one-note melancholic tone of the piece.

The writing never quite matches the creativeness evident in other areas of the production. The story feels like a mishmash of borrowed devices, a collage of quirks stuck together with glue, and theres seems to be some uncertainty regarding how the production is pitched: is it a fairytale for grown ups or a more universal study of loss?

And yet a delicacy in the presentation and an avoidance of both cynicism, cutesiness and overt sentimentality makes the more muddled elements easier to overlook. The company are chasing something elusive here: a magical quality, and while they, like Lilly, never quite catch up with it, at times they come close.

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