CAMDEN FRINGE REVIEW: The Fellowship, Hen and Chickens Theatre

running until 19 August

Camden Fringe pigeonSet in a pub and staged in a pub, The Fellowship is the latest work from Hodgson Creed Productions, who specialise in telling the stories of the storytellers – in this case of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, creators of Narnia and Middle Earth.

Written by Brian Hodgson (co-founder of the company), this new work visits Lewis and Tolkien (or Jack and Tollers, as we come to know them as) in the fledgling days of their friendship, with Lewis a fresh-faced new member of the Oxford University English department and Tolkien an eccentric, opinionated professor. Their shared appreciation of mythology clashes with their opposing religious views, but by the crackling fire of The Eagle and Child, beers in hand, they form a warm if occasionally imbalanced friendship. Tolkien’s forceful nature against Lewis’s impressionable youth forces the younger man to confront his own memories and beliefs – not always willingly; his obvious influence is also seen, in the end, to provoke Lewis’s most popular and enduring works.

Hodgson has done a skilful job of peppering the script with references to the authors’ renowned work without any overkill; the piece can be appreciated by fans of the fantasies and newcomers alike. Allusions in the script depict the shared themes and the differences of their works: the same love of fantasy and myth, but Lewis’s much-mocked predilection for talking animals (his depiction of a meerkat army leader isn’t too far from his creation of the kindly but war-mongering Reepicheep), compared to Tolkien’s darker tones and Elvish creation. As the empty glasses build up on the table, the pair swing from intense philosophical discussion to banter and make-believe games. Hodgson’s mixed tone of dialogue captures the delicately balanced nature of their most famous works – whimsical and childish at times, but also dark, alarming and dealing with the most mature and fundamental human instincts and emotions.

In the second half of the 60-minute show, Hodgson makes the bold choice to set one scene in near-total darkness. In such a visual medium as theatre, shutting off one of the audience’s key senses puts a lot of pressure on the script. Yet it is largely successful as the cast’s rendition of the meaty dialogue, combined with a simple yet effective soundscape, keeps our attention successfully.

It’s a gift to stage this show – in which two people form a close bond in a pub – in a real-life pub, although as with many of London’s pub theatres, it’s a shame that the cosy and convivial atmosphere of the downstairs bar doesn’t quite stretch to the theatre space above it. The staging is simple, but the Narnian lamppost is a very nice touch.

As Lewis and Tolkien, Alex Appleby and Henry Wyrley-Birch are well-suited to their roles. Appleby captures Lewis’s youthful exuberance well, but it is Wyrley-Birch who particularly shines as the older ‘Tollers’. His blend of eccentricity, bossiness and obvious intelligence is thoroughly engaging, and it’s certainly believable that the figure of Lewis could fall under this spell.

This is a brief piece of new theatre with minimal plot development. Instead, the focus is on a snapshot of a relationship that we all know bore much fruit – both of friendship and literary creativity. This is certainly not the most innovative, boundary-smashing, subversive show at the Camden Fringe. However, Hodgson Creed shows there is a place for this kind of theatre: it may be gentle, but it is a lovingly-crafted, fascinating and enjoyable piece about an unlikely friendship that forms in the face of differing beliefs – and that’s something we all like to see right now.

The Fellowship is playing as part of the Camden Fringe. Click here for more information. 


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