Review: The Toymaker’s Child caps ‘exceptional year’ for Chickenshed

After wowing the nation on television the Southgate theatre returns to what it does best, writes James Cracknell

The Toymaker’s Child (credit Chickenshed/Caz Dyer)

Chickenshed has always been popular across Enfield and Barnet, but this year the theatre group achieved wider national fame thanks to an emotional run to the semi-finals of Britain’s Got Talent, when even Simon Cowell gave them a standing ovation.

In her programme notes for this year’s Christmas show, The Toymaker’s Child, managing director Louise Perry reflects on the impact television stardom has had when she writes: “We weren’t expecting the magnitude of love […] It was as if the door we had been pushing against for so many years was suddenly opened, and the room we fell into was filled with hundreds of balloons with our name on.

“It felt amazing – beautifully overwhelming – and convinced us even more that THIS needs to spread, to show the world what it can be.”

Understandably, there has been a surge of interest in Chickenshed’s shows since April, with tickets selling fast and perhaps putting a little bit more pressure on the theatre’s young performers to live up to the hype.

I never doubted they would. I’ve been watching the annual Christmas shows since 2016 and I’ve yet to see a performance I could describe as anything less than fantastic – and The Toymaker’s Child is certainly no exception.

Much like last year, when Jack! took the old-fashioned story of a giantkiller and placed it into a modern world of video game badies and bosses, The Toymaker’s Child transforms the wooden carpenter’s toy Pinocchio into an AI robot that spends the show trying to work out if it might be something more than a lump of metal with a computer chip.

It’s another great concept, and one that is perfectly timed given the recent transformational arrival of ChatGPT and the debates about the influence of technology it has since sparked.

While there might not be any definitive answers about the future of AI to be found here, the journey of PIN:0cch10 is still a thought-provoking one. Most importantly, it’s a fun one, as the robot toy and her owner, Katy, venture into mysterious surroundings such as the trap-laden funfair, the ‘unschool’ where stupidity is rewarded, and the not-so-leisurely leisure island.

The Toymaker’s Child (credit Chickenshed/Caz Dyer)

The big set-pieces, sometimes featuring as many as 200 actors, singers and dancers on the stage at once, are interspersed with regular reports from a news desk above the stage where two hapless anchors do their best to get the ‘scoop’ of what PIN:0cch10 is up to. At one point this theme is extended to one of the songs, in which – to my surprise – copies of Enfield Dispatch are even used as a prop.

Everything from the music to the set design is perfectly matched to the mood of the story, helping bring each character to life.

With four rotating casts, there are 800 performers involved in this production in total, including (as usual) many children with special educational needs and physical disabilities – seeing how much joy they get from performing on stage is always a delight.

Next year is Chickenshed’s 50th, and what a half-century it has been.

The Toymaker’s Child is showing at Chickenshed Theatre throughout the rest of December and first half of January. For tickets:
 020 8292 9222

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