Birmingham Stage Company

New York Reviews

The New York Times

When the title character in “Skellig” is revealed to have wings, you may worry that you’ve wandered into the mawkish realm of “Touched by an Angel” and other vintage pop entertainment about heavenly messengers. But don’t be fooled: if this unusual play has a presiding deity, it’s Darwin. The script abounds in references to human evolution, to birds’ descent from dinosaurs, to the wildness that civilization keeps only partly at bay. Oh, yes, and lots of quotations from William Blake.

While this may seem like a heavy load for a production aimed at children 9 and older, the two-hour “Skellig” flies by. David Almond, a British author, has adapted his own prizewinning young-adult novel, brought to the New Victory Theater (along with an exhibition about Mr. Almond’s work) by the Birmingham Stage Company.

“Skellig” unfolds on a magnificent set by Jacqueline Trousdale: a towering pile of junk representing the garage of the old house that Michael, a British schoolboy, has just moved into with his parents and sister, a premature newborn. While exploring the clutter, Michael (Dean Logan, above, with Charlotte Sanderson) encounters Skellig, a seeming tramp hiding there, virtually immobilized by arthritis. Skellig demands to be left alone, but Michael is mesmerized. Resolving to rescue Skellig before the garage is demolished, Michael enlists the help of his new friend, Mina, a free-spirited neighbor (Ms. Sanderson).

Directed by Phil Clark, “Skellig” has a Greek chorus of sorts: actors who narrate, portray townspeople and play haunting background music on violins and other instruments. This imaginative device enhances the drama but doesn’t draw in the audience as much as Michael’s voice does in the novel. You wonder why this boy doesn’t have a child’s more typical curiosities — what does Skellig use for a bathroom? — and why he doesn’t consult his parents.

But “Skellig,” flawlessly acted, insists on being taken on its own terms. Wearing its mysticism lightly, the play presents this man-bird as no more strange, and no less wonderful, than the owls and dinosaurs that captivate Mina. The central question becomes not so much who Skellig is — angel, alien, missing link — but whether he and the critically ill baby sister Michael loves so fiercely can survive. “Death is all around,” the script says. But so — often improbably and against all odds — is life.


Time Out New York

Science and spirituality—two subjects that usually oppose each other—come together in radiant metaphysical harmony in Skellig, David Almond’s stage adaptation of his award-winning children’s novel, which arrives in New York courtesy of Britain’s Birmingham Stage Company. Far from delving into matters beyond the aptitude of his readers, Almond creates magic and preserves innocence with his story of a boy who finds a mysterious, woebegone creature in the garage.

That boy is Michael (Dean Logan), who’s dealing with a new home and a sickly baby sister. Unable to do anything to cure her, Michael charges himself with nursing the arthritic and snarky Skellig (a marvelously brooding Neal Foster) back to health—with copious helpings of Chinese takeout. Joining him is his spirited new friend, Mina (Charlotte Sanderson), and together they discover that Skellig may be an evolved bird or an angel fallen to earth, but he’s beyond anything they’ve ever thought possible.

Phil Clark’s busy staging keeps his winsome ten-person ensemble hopping around a stage dominated by Jacqueline Trousdale’s towering junk sculpture of a garage. But he slows the pace down often enough to give Almond’s graceful musings about loss and renewal berth. Soft, reflective string music, played by members of the company, heightens moments of high emotion and illusion, especially scenes where Skellig, Michael and Mina take flight. “Truth and dreams are always getting muddled,” Mina wisely observes. Almond wrestles so eloquently with such philosophical matters that adults as much as children can appreciate the challenges and rewards of this rich tale.


BACKSTAGE

The mystery that is "Skellig" is a treat to be savoured by those, young and old, who seek theatrical magic. It succeeds in imbuing a child's contemporary workaday world with a timeless sense of wonder. This 1998 award-winning children's novel, by David Almond, is here adapted by the author for the stage and presented by the Birmingham Stage Company in a skilfully cohesive production. Almond's multilayered story combines such diverse elements as alienation, Chinese takeout, evolution, soccer, nesting birds, friendship, dreams, family, a derelict house, the need for faith, the poet William Blake, a mended heart, and angels. And all these Almond delivers with well-observed sentiment without once descending to the sentimental.

Young Michael (Dean Logan) has just moved with his dad (Colin R. Campbell) and pregnant mum (Charlotte Palmer) to an old but bigger house, because of the growing family. When the baby is born prematurely, she has breathing problems and is soon seriously ill. Left to his own devices, Michael, against his parent's strict warning, enters the rickety garage on the property. Here he discovers a kind of man, an evil-smelling tramp of few words, to whom Michael delivers aspirin and Chinese leftovers. This is the character who later will be known as Skellig (Neal Foster). To make sure he hasn't imagined his strange discovery, Michael asks his new next-door friend, Mina (Charlotte Sanderson), to accompany him. Mina, homeschooled and wise beyond her years, reassures Michael that "truth and dreams are always getting muddled"; together, they prove that Skellig is real and might even have wings. The help they give this tramp will change their lives and the lives of the people they love.

One of the catch cries in the story is "Extraordinary!," and this adjective is especially applicative to the cast, a true ensemble in every way. Under Phil Clark's wonderfully fluid direction, the versatile actors play several roles, plus a musical instrument or two, and aid with the narration. On Jacqueline Trousdale's imaginative junk pile of a set, with help from Jak Poore's lively score, the story speeds along. The two young protagonists are nicely contrasted: Logan's bewildered Everyboy and Sanderson's insightful, free-spirited Mina. Foster's Skellig easily moves from his early roughness to tenderness in a late scene of star-filled redemption.

At the performance attended, as the audience moved out, nearby parents looked to their 10-year old for her reaction. Clearly a critic in the making, she looked up to state: "Absolutely astounding!"


Revived by the always reliable Birmingham Stage Company, SKELLIG remains as refreshing as it is lively. There aren't many shows around that offer a bit of uplift. Skellig delivers just that.

The Times

A darkly glittering production that makes you see the extraordinary in the everyday and the turbulent intensity of childhood. It has an excellent junk-laden design by Jacqueline Trousdale and atmospheric music from composer Jak Poore. A powerful reminder that the world is full of mysteries, some of which can be explained away and some of which remain unsolved.

The Guardian

The BSC's production of this wondrous and multi-layered story is riveting. Skellig is powerfully played by Neal Foster and his presence is awesome. Raw emotion contrasts with great tenderness and the audience gave it thunderous applause.

The Stage

This is simply an amazing piece of theatre, a fantastic adaptation of the novel. The audience were spellbound.

Solihull Times 

This is seamless, sophisticated theatre with a real emotional pull. The show is so well crafted and looks terrific. A lively young audience watched in wrapt silence.

Birmingham Post

This eloquently presented, lyrical adaptation is spookily lit and breathily paced, maintaining the emotional charge of the story.

Time Out

An extraordinary and magical atmosphere with real emotional depth. Skellig is played by Neal Foster with an elemental, force-of-nature magnetism and the audience can't take their eyes off him. It's magnificent stuff.

Birmingham Mail

The imaginations of younger theatregoers will be sent soaring after seeing this production. Neal Foster is excellent as the "extraordinary" creature and parents should certainly seize the opportunity to get young people into the theatre with both hands

Basingstoke Gazette

Congratulations BSC on this wonderfully entertaining piece of serious, thought-provoking theatre, seamlessly crafted by a superb, multi-skilled cast and delivered to an audience packed with primary schoolers, early teens and equally enthralled adults. They've were treated to a mighty fine stage performance - a first-class theatre experience.

MatureTimes

Entertaining, enthralling and thought-provoking. Dean Logan and Charlotte Sanderson are faultless in the central roles of Michael and Mina and Neal Foster is chilling as the enigmatic Skellig. A superb production from the Birmingham Stage Company.

Halifax Courier

Innovative theatre is something for which the Birmingham Stage Company is well known. And this production is innovative indeed, with a unique and fabulous set. What follows is a wonderful story of escapism and hope. Don't miss it.

Worthing Herald

This simply brilliant production manages, by way of simple storytelling supported by Jak Poore's subtle and beautiful music, to expose each layer of the narrative in such a way as to draw us closer and closer to its heart. It's credit to the strength of the story, the production and a superb performance by Neal Foster that we all take the leap of faith required to take us on this marvellous journey.

The Argus

I urge you to see this production. SKELLIG is a play to make you think, to challenge what you know about the world, to show that great things are possible. It is also superbly acted. An uplifting play to celebrate.

Farnham Herald


THE GUARDIAN – Lyn Gardner

David Almond's children's novel has much in common with Whistle Down the Wind. In the latter, a group of children discover a homeless man who they believe may be Jesus. In Almond's book, Michael, a young boy, whose life is in turmoil, finds a grumpy sick man called Skellig living in his garage. Is he an arthritic old tramp, a figment of Michael's imagination, or an angel with a dirty face, smelly breath and humps on his shoulder blades where his wings might be? Or could he even be death itself?

Birmingham Stage Company's revival of Almond's own adaptation of his novel, first seen at the Young Vic in 2003, may not quite achieve metaphysical magic, but it's a darkly glittering couple of hours that makes you see the extraordinary in the everyday and the turbulent intensity of childhood.

Between school life and visits to the hospital to see his sick newborn sister, Michael and his wild-child friend Mina take Skellig nightly gifts of aspirin, brown ale and Chinese takeaways. If Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials made room in children's literature for Milton, then Almond does the same here for Blake, suggesting that innocence combined with imagination is a potent mix – one with the power to change lives.

Phil Clark's production neatly side-steps all sentimentality as the story builds to its redeeming climax, and it has an excellent junk-laden design by Jacqueline Trousdale and atmospheric music from composer Jak Poore. There's a game cast, too, led by the gangly Dean Logan as Michael and Charlotte Sanderson as Mina.

It may not have the feather-light, multilayered richness of the book, but this is a powerful reminder that the world is full of mysteries, some of which can be explained away and some of which remain unsolved.


THE TIMES by Benedict Nightingale
UPLIFTING PRODUCTION OF A STORY THAT TAKES WING

“Just imagine” are the opening words of David Almond’s adaptation of his own novel, and you must do plenty of that. For a start, you must enter the troubled mind of a young Geordie called Michael. His family has just moved to a house where it’s DIY or die. He has ambivalent feelings about the baby sister who is fighting for her life in a hospital incubator. And then he finds a tattered oldster who appears to live on mice and spiders in a corner of the derelict garage that his father plans to bulldoze to the ground.

What are he and the girl next door to do with a tramp who says he’s called “nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing” and wants nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, all the while yelling at them to go away? But it’s the identity of Neal Foster’s unnervingly angry Skellig, as the intruder is actually named, that makes the strongest demands on the imagination.

One clue is that he appears to have oddly large shoulder blades. Another is the constant mention of William Blake, who believed there were angels all around us and sometimes painted them. Yet another is the equally pointed invocation of Darwinism. And when Foster’s despairing Skellig finally manages to stumble to his feet he turns out to have wings and, perhaps, strange powers he has half-forgotten how to use.

If I were Richard Dawkins, which I’m glad I’m not, I would say that Almond is writing a sci-fi piece about the next step in human evolution. If I were Blake, who I’d quite like to have been, I would say that Dean Logan’s scrawny, nerdish Michael and Charlotte Sanderson’s bright young Mina have stumbled on a being who isn’t less miraculous for moaning about his arthritis, craving Chinese takeaways and Newcastle Brown Ale, and regarding himself as a pathetic failure.

Almond keeps the evidence uncertain, ambiguous — only at the end letting us feel that Blake’s inner eye was wiser than Dawkins’ big brain is now.

It’s not hard to foresee what will ensue when Almond’s two plots — the baby with the hole in the heart, the tramp with the hole in the soul — come together at the denouement.

But this didn’t spoil my enjoyment of a play which, as revived by the always reliable Birmingham Stage Company, remains as refreshing as it is lively. There aren’t many shows around that offer a bit of uplift. Skellig delivers just that.



THE ARGUS - WORTHING
18 November. Review by Eleanor Knight

The very best drama shows us the world anew and turns what we thought we knew on its head. David Almond's classic tale, Skellig, here told in his own powerful adaptation for the stage by The Birmingham Stage Company, does just that.

Almond specialises in the kind of stories in which everyday life is compellingly reinterpreted by means of wonder and ambiguity. This simply brilliant production manages, by way of simple storytelling supported by Jak Poore's subtle and beautiful music, to expose each layer of the narrative in such a way as to draw us closer and closer to its heart.

Michael's baby sister is gravely ill, and while his parents are busy ferrying her to and from the hospital, Michael discovers a down-and-out living in his garage. Who he is and how he got there is a mystery, but gradually through Michael and his friend Mina's love and attention he is transformed into ...well, an angel perhaps? A creature that has slipped through into another stage of evolution? A figment of their imagination? Whatever he is, they must keep believing and extraordinary things will happen.

The young audience at the Connaught recognised immediately the kind of character your parents hurry you past in a doorway. It's credit to the strength of the story, the production and a superb performance by Neal Foster that we all take the leap of faith required to take us on this marvellous journey.
 


MANCHESTER EVENING NEWS
Thursday 8 October 2009 | by Natalie Anglesey

DAVID Almond’s award-winning classic, published in 1998, beat Harry Potter to win the coveted Whitbread Children’s Book Award.

Last year, Skellig was turned into an opera and this year 1m viewers watched the film version on Sky.

The author has kept firm control of his book, writing the libretto for the opera and even adapting this stage version which was seen last year in London and Birmingham and is told in a narrative style which involves the entire company.

Presented by the excellent Birmingham Stage Company, this eerie, mystical tale is the story of 10 year old Michael who is stressed by a move to a new, but dilapidated house, a new school and even more so by his ill baby sister. When he and his friend Mina discover a creature in the crumbling garage, their lives are changed forever.

There’s a terrific set but it’s a pity this intimate piece wasn’t housed in the Quays Theatre where currently Hot Mikado is staged. Like Hot Mikado, this play is presented by a talented company of ten actor-musicians who play a variety of roles.

Playing the pivotal role of Skellig is BSC’s actor/manager Neal Foster, who gives a charismatic performance. But this is such an ensemble piece that all should be congratulated.

This play is recommended for children over the age of five but because of certain disturbing elements, I think the age limit should be slightly older. However there’s certainly enough to entertain both adults and children.
 


WHAT'S ON STAGE.COM
Wednesday 7 October 2009 | by Poppy Helm

David Almond's Skellig, is not short of accolades, having already won the Whitbread Children's Book of the Year and the Carnegie Medal (1998) in it's first incarnation as a children's novel. Arguably, the author's adaptation brought to the Lowry by Birmingham Stage Company is worthy of a few more.

Skellig opens with a cluttered set laden with junk (Jackie Trousdale), immediately transporting us to that dusty forgotten corner in our own garages. A staircase is the main feature, with props cleverly concealed in various cubbyholes, keeping set changes to a minimum and the momentum of the action high. Musical accompaniment is provided by actors playing instruments on stage, creating an atmosphere so seamlessly that we almost forget they're present.

Neal Foster's Skellig is grouchy and pathetic, riddled with 'Arthur-ritus' and with little interest in visitors. Despite this, the warmth and concern that Mina (Charlotte Sanderson) and Michael (Dean Logan) show for him cannot help but invoke our sympathy. The dialogue is believable, yet poignant and brought to life by a talented cast. Much of the narration is delivered in a rhythmic, chanting chorus that is evocative of religious ceremony, aligning with the angelic theme.

The beauty of this play is in it's universal appeal; a neat narrative with a satisfying ending wrapped in the tantalising mystery of the Skellig's true nature. A story that is as moving for adults as it is entertaining for children; I defy anyone to get to the final curtain without a tear in their eye.


THE STAGE NEWSPAPER
Friday 17 October 2008 | by Pat Ashworth

Phil Clark’s brand new production of this wondrous and multi-layered story is riveting. The towering helix of junk that depicts the house from basement to attic is a work of art in itself, a mountain of ironmongery that features the most unsavoury toilet in the world.

Michael (Iain Ridley) has to cope with more than the average ten year old in the face of a house move and the demands of a baby sister fighting for life. Tense scenes at home and hospital are comically punctuated with school lessons on evolution, football in the playground, bus journeys and trips to the Chinese takeaway.

Ridley gives a wholly credible performance as a child expected to behave like an adult. Colin R Campbell is the feisty Geordie dad trying to hold things together. Jill Regan is a delightful Mina, the home-educated girl next door, who has an encyclopaedic knowledge and shares with her mother a love of William Blake.

Blake is important, because this whole beautiful play hinges on the question of who and what are angels. Skellig, the ungrateful, arthritic tramp discovered in the garage, is powerfully played by Neal Foster. His clumsy presence is awesome, especially when he is brought into the light in redemptive scenes set against a background of stars in a night sky.

It’s a fast-moving ensemble piece where the cast also pick up instruments to play the music and effects. Raw emotion contrasts with moments of great tenderness, and an audience of schoolchildren gave it thunderous applause.


Solihull Times | 15 October 2008


The Birmingham Post Online
Angel delight - but not sickly sweet

There are a couple of unusual but illuminating credits in the programme booklet that goes with the Birmingham Stage Company's wonderful new show, Skellig.

Special thanks are offered to The Civic Amenity Recycling Centre, Summers Lane, Finchley, 'for the junk', and Phil Eason gets a mention for 'Skellig Wings'. The latter are truly tremendous, too. But so is the junk.

These are the two poles which encompass the world of Skellig, the marvellous and the mundane. As director Phil Clark puts it in a perceptive programme note, David Almond, the writer of this modern classic story, has the gift of finding the extraordinary in the ordinariness of life and making it accessible to young people.

The show, with its wonderful work by a selfless ensemble cast and a superb single set by Jacqueline Trousdale that works perfectly for multiple locations, creates an extraordinary and magical atmosphere.

But this is no trite and patronising tale for the youngsters. There's real emotional depth and complex interactions. The strange creature at the centre of the story, Skellig, owes as much to the children who help him (with Chinese takeaways and brown ale) as he gives to them.

If he is an angel, he has more in common with the creations of Milton and Philip Pullman than any Biblical stereotypes. Skellig is played by Neal Foster with an elemental, force-of-nature magnetism - he is far from likeable, but the audience (and the kids who help him) can't take their eyes off him.

Like the owls whose food he shares (along with Numbers 27 and 53 from the takeaway menu) he is entirely his own creature and yet in touch with the whole of creation. The sick baby he 'cures' puts him to rights as well in the strange symbiotic dance we see enacted high above the Old Rep stage - a great theatrical moment which demands the audience joins in with their imaginations rather than any cheap aerial work.

Magnificent stuff. Great work from Iain Ridley, an Old Rep regular by now, as the boy, and Jill Regan makes her first big show debut since graduating from drama college as the oddball girl Mina who befriends and helps him, with copious advice from the works of William Blake. She does a marvellous job.

But, then, this is very much an ensemble piece, with the whole cast contributing to the onstage music and vocal work courtesy of Jak Poore's score.

The show is in Birmingham until Saturday. Do try to catch it - you'll come out feeling as if you had Skellig's wings: and longing for Chinese takeaway and brown ale - 'blinkin' nectar of the gods'.