Review: The Insatiable, Inflatable Candylion, SSE Swalec Stadum

Published in The Independent on December 20, 2015

Only the imagination of Gruff Rhys could have come up with this singular show. He expands his 2007 album Candylion into a psychedelic fable – for all the family! Billed by National Theatre Wales as a “theatre gig”, live music propels the story, with the audience standing or moving about the space.

We’re in Pixel Valley, where hybrid creatures – Candylion, Polarpear, Meringueutan – happily gather pixel fruit. But after the Candylion swallows some negative vibes, she begins to grow – and get nasty. The pink creature (played with winning childish stroppiness by Remy Beasley) turns into a tyrannical “Turbo Capitalist”, forcing the others to work in her candy factory. Only Caruin – a carnation penguin, obviously! – resists. After an epic journey to the land of the Cone People, he returns to persuade Candylion – swollen into an enormous, inflatable set of jaws – that it’s better to share.

The word ‘surreal’ is liberally used today – but Candylion really, genuinely is. It’s delightful, and should delight kids.

Rhys came up with the show after noticing children were coming to the Candylion album tour, clearly responding to the twee plinky-plonk or gently driving rhythms of his songs. Still, I’ll have to take his word for it – I see one of the ‘after-dark’ shows, with an adult audience; we get an extra “theatrical encore”, his 20-minute song ‘Skylon’, guest starring Charlotte Church no less.

But the play’s main, archly anti-capitalist allegory certainly works for adults; indeed, there are elements that are really more for groovy parents than kids. But the underlying story and message – be inclusive; don’t be greedy – is definitely child-friendly.

They even find some cute ways to explain economic principles: if the irony of a dance number about the “trickle down” effect flies over little heads, the concept is then explained, revealing with childish simplicity the injustice of the theory. “I have the jar – and you have the drips”, says Candylion. “Can’t we just share what’s in the jar?” questions Caruin. Get ‘em young, Gruff!

The music is a delight – as a high-concept gig, The Insatiable, Inflatable Candylion is a roaring success. Rhys narrates in his inimitably zoned-out, meandering style, and leads a super-group featuring Sweet Baboo, Lisa Jen Brown from 9Bach, and Kliph Scurlock from the Flaming Lips. He even conducts a conga round the venue in a tiny wooden car.

But that moment aside, the hangar-like space doesn’t do them any favours. It felt under-filled, the 360-degree staging over-stretching the core cast of six – and the budget. It might have worked if they could bring on a big chorus; instead, the energy too often dissipated, sliding from anarchic into shambling.

Not that there isn’t a coherent vision here: the hybrids’ costumes are fab, and Wils Wilson’s production is clever in its use of bubblegum cartoon stylings – we enjoy the sugar rush, while also recognising that this shiny, pester-power pink is its own capitalist coating. But while Candylion may have an easy-to-swallow message delivered in Rhys’ deliriously odd signature style, when the sugar-high wears off you’re left hungry for something a bit more substantial.

Where next?