Stage Door Review

London, GBR: I Wish I Was a Mountain

Sunday, February 24, 2019

✭✭✭✭✩

by Toby Thompson, directed by Lee Lyford 

the egg, Theatre Royal Bath & Travelling Light Theatre, Purcell Room, Southbank Centre, London

February 22-23, 2019

☛ Touring the UK until May 30, 2019 – see below

“There were all sorts of stories in this book that I found, 

but in my opinion none of them were quite so profound”

Toby Thompson’s I Wish I Was a Mountain is one of the most delightful storytelling performances I have ever experienced. It premiered in September last year at the egg at the Theatre Royal Bath and was immediately snapped up for presentations all over the UK. On February 22 and 23 it was part of the Imagine Children’s Festival in London, where I saw it. Thomson is such a warm, open, natural performer that a show like this should inspire not only those aged 6 and up for which it is intended, but adults who long to recall the wisdom of childhood and twentysomethings like Thompson who love words, poetry, stories and the pleasure they give their listeners. 

Thompson’s show is based on the fairy tale “Faldum” by Hermann Hesse first published in Hesse’s collection Märchen in 1919. Thompson, however, goes about telling this story in a completely roundabout manner which seems to reflect the charming quirkiness of his personality. The show starts with Thompson playing jazz piano to a vinyl recording in the cosy living-room-like set designed by Anisha Field. The set actually features two turntables and a tape deck that suggest Thompson is more at home in the pre-digital world. The set is also decorated with houses in both two and three dimensions, a motif that will become important later when Thompson tells his story. 

After introducing himself as a poet, Thompson describes walking through his hometown of Bath and coming upon a bench where a book had been left. His piano bench stands in for the bench in Bath. He looks through the book and finds all the typical kinds of fairy tales, but one in particular strikes him and this he chooses to tell us. When he opens the book to the right page, a little house pops up.

To accompany his story Thompson chooses tracks from various records he has. He holds up a vinyl record and asks how many in the audience know what it is. Adults will find this both wistful and amusing. But for the children, Thompson explains how a record player works to translate the sounds captured on the vinyl into sounds we hear. “It’s magic”, he says and that sums up the world on stage he has already created – an enchanted world where anything can happen.

The story he tells is of the very ordinary town of Faldum. Today is the day of the fair and everyone is excited. Thompson takes one of the two-storey houses on the set and lifts it up to reveal another inside. Inside that is another and another in inside that. These he places along the front of the stage and from the chimney of another house strews a trails of sand between the houses to indicate the road through town. At the fair various booths sell things and Thompson lifts the roofs of the houses to reveal some of things that are on sale. Anisha Field’s incredibly inventive set is a pleasure in itself.

One of the booths at the fair is the booth of mirrors and this prompts Thompson to reveal mirrors that have been hidden all about the set. It also prompts him to ask what it is that a mirror shows. Are we our heads? Are we our bodies? Are we what we say? Are we what we think?

Thompson reminds us that his story takes place far back in time, before trains, planes, television and before Facebook “when people has faces and people had books”.

With this introduction of fundamental questions of existence, we learn that a mysterious man, probably a wizard, enters Faldum and sets himself up in the booth of mirrors. He says he will grant any wish that anyone asks him. This prompts Thompson to ask the audience what it would wish for if this were to happen. For his part, Thompson says that he would not wish for anything to be different than it is today, to be telling this story at this particular time and place to us. 

The people of Faldum, however, are different. They begin with fairly mundane wishes and when they see they are granted move on to more and more grandiose wishes, usually involving wealth and beauty. Finally, only two youths are left who have not made wishes. One is a violinist and he wishes to have a violin that will make more exquisite music than anyone has ever heard before. The music turns out to be so exquisite that the musician and his music become one vanishing into the air. To illustrate this, Thompson rather humorously drops an antacid tablet in a glass of water and points out the bubbles fizzing away. Yet, how many shows supposedly aimed at children would sum up the violinist’s fate with so profound a statement as “The destiny of music is silence”? 

The other young man is the one who wishes to be a mountain. He wants this to escape the human inclination of always wanting and needing and being dissatisfied. The transformation happens and Thompson moves thousands of years into the future to see how the young man, now a mountain, feels about his wish. 

Telling his story Thompson gradually moves from prose to poetry, often anapaestic tetrameter, with both end rhymes and internal rhymes. It is witty, surprising and always a delight to the ear. Thompson’s voice is warm and gentle, his Bathonian accent giving its sounds a newness to non-Bathonian ears. 

Though in his mid-twenties, Thomson is boyish-looking, his short hair growing out every which way. He illustrates is story with the kind of semi-uncontrolled gestures that 7-year-old use which surely helps his young audience identify with him and yet wonder at his ability to conjure up thoughts, feelings and whole worlds with his words. For interludes in his story he plays the piano. He chooses the albums for his soundtracks as if it were a decision of the moment. Indeed, although we know it cannot be so, Thompson’s whole performance has the freshness of spontaneity and complete naturalness. 

In only 45 minutes Thompson takes his audience on an immense journey of the imagination from his ordinary-but-not-so-ordinary living room on stage to a world where any wish can be granted and the very nature of wishing and who we are is brought into question. Children will be entranced by the adventure and magic of Thompson’s story and his ear-tickling way of telling it, but adults will be struck by how wise the story is and how the questions Thompson so innocently asks are perhaps the most fundamental questions there are.

Toby Thompson is a remarkable performer whose gifts come so naturally to him he seems not to be aware of how remarkable he is. Having seen him once I long to see his other shows and to find out how his talents develop. As for I Wish I Was a Mountain, it is a show that combines simplicity and profundity in so appealing a manner that it simply should not be missed. Yes, do bring children to see it if you have them. But if you have none, feel free to go as an adult and to exit with a new door opened to the childhood wonder you thought you had forgotten. 

Christopher Hoile

Running time: 45 minutes.

Tour stops after London, UK:

• The Citadel Arts Centre, St Helens, Merseyside

March 31, 2019;

• New Wolsey Studio, Ipswich

April 6, 2019;

• Heywood Civic Centre, Heywood

April 12, 2019;

• Yate Library, Bristol

April 17, 2019;

• Imaginate, Edinbugh

May 28-30, 2019

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: Toby Thompson in I Wish I Was a Mountain at the egg. © 2018 Jack Offord. 

For tickets, visit www.travellinglighttheatre.org.uk.