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Theatre Review: Coraline

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Coraline is a bored child, alone in a new house whilst her parents work ceaselessly. Her story is not just one of uninspired days without playmates, though, but is one of complete emotional neglect on the part of her parents – setting the scene for her potential luring into a parallel universe that appears as a much idealised version of her own.

After passing through a bricked up doorway in her new home, Coraline (so insignificant in her own world that people refuse to get her name right) finds herself the apparently much loved daughter of an ‘Other Mother’ and ‘Other Father’, who have time for her in a way that her real parents never seem to. Obviously there are sinister games at work, but not ones that are easy to spot at first.

The production was specially created for Create Salford 2014 by Scallywags Children’s Theatre Company, and featured acting and direction from the University of Salford’s performance undergraduates – but rather than being purely for children, its themes of horror and its sinister direction means it transcends this to become a dark look at a neglected child that adults can take a lot from.

The use of shadow puppetry gives the production an extremely sinister yet still somehow youthful effect, and the playful physicality of Coraline herself alongside her doll-like costume reinforces this. Add in the horror tropes of old houses and a missing little girl long ago, and you’ve got yourself a reliably creepy fantasy story, and a production that is carefully suggestive of its horrifying themes without giving them away too early.

The 2009 stop-motion film, based on the book by Neil Gaiman, was nominated at both the Oscars and the Golden Globes for Best Animated Feature – so taking it on is a challenge, but one that the performers manage to rise to. Coraline’s ‘other’ parents put in stellar performances, especially her button-eyed ‘Other Mother’, who brings a coldness to the stage every time she appears, Stepford and spectral-like.

Putting the play on stage means different choices are made from the book or the film – there is no physical transformation here, for example, and whilst the shadow puppetry aspect definitely adds an eerie quality the child ghosts of the book are not made explicit. But this doesn’t affect the production negatively, and despite the parallel universe and horror-fantasy themes that are central, allows this version more grounding in our own world - which makes it all the more haunting.

The ending, too, takes a different form from the book or the film, leaving Coraline’s future much more open than has been seen previously, and offering us food for thought after we’ve left the theatre.

In the manner of Alice in Wonderland, which in its story of a bored little girl passing through a portal into another world and finding monster-like characters that reflect her own reality it owes a large amount to, Coraline is a slightly unsettling journey, but one that succeeds and both entertaining and unnerving its audience.

Coraline was performed by the Scallywags Children’s Theatre Company and the University of Salford’s BA (Hons) Performance students as part of Create Salford 2014, at MediaCityUK.

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