"General synopsis: Mainly (very) good."
by Avril Silk for remotegoat on 16/06/15

Anything that begins and ends with the Shipping Forecast is onto a winner with me. As a child, staying with my Great-aunt Alice I heard the distinctive, poetic phrases with no understanding but enormous appreciation. A sense of security and the possibility of mystery – two essential ingredients for a fairy story. Jack Dean’s ‘Grandad and the Machine’, now playing at Exeter’s Bike Shed, is a steam punk fairy story that offers both - a world we almost recognise, with a corkscrew twist of dystopia. Bird’s Opium Custard, indeed. Plus a Zeppelin.

Jack Dean’s writing is original, peppered with wit and bristling with ideas. Startlingly beautiful images are lobbed into the mix with the insouciance of someone delivering a throwaway line. I relished the many pops at capitalism and corporate greed. I know that reading the script would reveal a scattering of gems that were sometimes lost in the mayhem. I don’t want to give away any of the surprises or the dark secret at the heart of the story, but rest assured, they are clever and satisfying. There’s a lot of very British humour and attitudes; try as I might, I can’t avoid the word ‘quirky.’ But that’s just a strand – the lyrical, understated ending had a depth that brought tears to my eyes.

Sophie Mosberger’s set was extremely effective. I loved the circular screen – like the eye of Leviathan – and the well-chosen images that accompanied the epic voyage of Imogen (about to turn eight) and her Yorkshire-man father as they headed north on an urgent visit to Grandad. Jack introduced us to a host of memorable characters as their journey unfolded. Some of them – the King, for example - could usefully be fleshed out, along with the back story, which was a tad sketchy. The special effects were very good, especially the burning coals.

Josh Lucas is a talented musician whose versatility matches Jack’s inventiveness. Josh played a dazzling selection of instruments – the musical soundtrack to Jack’s storytelling, with a sensitive response that enhanced my enjoyment. But sometimes the drums overwhelmed Jack’s voice, even when he used a microphone, a problem magnified by the intimacy of the venue, and very difficult to rectify. Sometimes audibility suffered at the hands of excitement and I suspect a few cracking jokes were lost to the very appreciative audience.

I think ‘Grandad and the Machine’ would appeal to a wide age-range, but it is billed as ‘for adults.’ I have been wondering why. I understand that the billing makes possible a sprinkling of fruity expletives, but given a choice – on the one hand, swearing; on the other, lots of happy, younger viewers - I know which I’d choose. Given that the script mentions that Imogen probably heard worse in the playground, there is probably an on-going, difficult but useful debate about what makes a story unsuitable for children. First, you define ‘child’ And then ‘unsuitable’. And then you go crazy. I’m sure the team had the debate, but I disagree with the result. That aside, this is a really enjoyable and unusual performance.

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