While civic society is paralysed by the poverty of imagination displayed in politics, media and sport as we pay for the egotistic hubris of early 21st century banking culture literally cowering Southwark Playhouse's audiences under The Shard, rising like a screaming child demanding attention (the architectural equivalent of Roald Dahl's Veruca Salt), London's theatre continues to defy the trend, refusing to talk down to its audience, refusing to wallow in excuses. And nowhere is that more evident than at Southwark Playhouse's play-cum-film-cum installation, Howl's Moving Castle - a triumph of theatrical imagination.
Diana Wynne Jones' much loved tale of the showy wizard, his fire demon and the young girl under a spell eventually broken by her love for the peripatetic castle and her melting of the wizard's heart, is realised on an almost bare set with just a papier-mache (or so it appears) castle standing out in relief.
And so the magic begins. Davy and Kristin McGuire's team have created thousands of images to project on to that expanse of whiteness, transforming it into a study, a witch's home, a wasteland, a mountainous Welsh landscape, even Egypt's Valley of the Kings. Thus does the castle move and thus are special effects married perfectly to both an aesthetic sensibility and narrative obligation. Each of those images could be frozen and, like the work of film-maker Hayao Miyazaki (an artist also attracted to the Moving Castle) stand alone as a thing of wonder.
With all that going on behind them (and with a bit of Bob Hoskins / Jessica Rabbit style actor / animation interaction to deal with) the cast could get a little lost, but a tight script and fine performances allow them to hold their own. Daniel Ings' Howl finds the slapstick and the pathos in the wizard running away from responsibility; Susan Sheridan is charismatic and feisty as the young girl aged by a spell; and Kristin McGuire is catwomanly evil as the Witch and coquettishly flirtatious as Young Sophie. The humans are helped and hindered by James Wilkes' Calcifier, the fire demon who flits about the castle in a burst of flame, powering its movement to Sophie's command. Stephen Fry narrates, providing a familiar centre for this array of acting and animation.
Billed as a family Christmas show by Southwark Playhouse, it delivers its brief, but it's much more. The full house into which I squeezed comprised as many of the kind of clientele one might see at the nearby Tate Modern as families out for a Christmas treat. And why not? Howl's Moving Castle is a treat for everyone.
Howl's Moving Castle is at Southwark Playhouse until 7 January 2012.