Theatre review: Tall Stories’ THE GRUFFALO, The Lyric Theatre

tall

gruff

This summer, Tall Stories’ production of The Gruffalo returns to the Lyric Theatre for another monster West End season; a well-seasoned hit, with some new touches in costume and set design.

The Victorian theatres of the West End are not particularly child-friendly – the shallow rake makes no allowances for diminutive patrons (having booster cushions available, as the New London did for Elephantom visitors last year, would be a useful innovation), and the air-conditioning battles slightly to cool a sweating mass of oscillating kids and flustered parents, especially on a day as hot as this one. Having somebody to watch on stage beforehand would also help beguile young spectators wondering aloud, with increasing desperation, ‘Why hasn’t it begun yet?’ (Also, beware the omnipresent Gruffalos-on-a-stick – eye-wateringly priced at £4 a pop).

However, there’s a massive ‘Woooo!’ when the lights go down, and most of the audience remains enraptured throughout (apart from the tiniest infantry, who are traumatised by the enthusiastic roars of the audience, and who have to be removed in tears. This is definitely a show best suited to 3+, and viewers who can handle ‘mild peril’.) My four-year-old is slightly perturbed by the growly Gruffalo (played by Owen Guerin, surely boiling in his enormous furry dream-coat, but carrying it off with aplomb.) However, she loves the Mouse, played by Ellie Bell to cocky, cheeky effect, and roars and sings and counts along with enthusiasm. I’m slightly unconvinced by the wide-boy reimagining of the Fox, and the lounge-lizardy Snake, a camply Spanish stereotype which feels a bit dated and panto-esque.  Both of us, however, love the pompous Owl in his military attire, bumbling self-appointed commander of the Forest Air Force: “Twit! And, might I add…Twoo!” (All three predators are played by the hard-working Timothy Richey.)

Air Force Owl
Air Force Owl

The essence of good children’s theatre is doing more with less, and this production is most successful when it does so – using just three actors and a set of engagingly Scheffer-esque trees, some of which boast tiny doors or interiors with punning cross-stitch (‘Home Tweet Home’), and sticking closely to the pared-down bare bones of the story itself. There’s a bit too much padding-out and badinage, especially at the beginning of the show, much of which goes over the kids’ heads – but the show hits its stride when the story properly gets going. And my daughter and I both love the new costume design – everybody guffaws at the moment when the ears ping upright on the Fox’s cap, and the Mouse’s rope tail, the Owl’s neon orange specs, and the Snake’s spangled jacket all go down a treat.

Timothy Richey as Fox
Timothy Richey as Fox

Although some of the songs feel a bit misjudged to me – too old for pre-schoolers, and too slapstick for parents – the Gruffalo song, a growly number with a mockney, Parklifey chorus (‘G-g-g-gruffalo!’), causes even the spouse to whom most theatre is anathema to sing it quietly all the way home. My pedantic reservations set aside, most pre-schoolers will have a barnstorming time with Tall Stories’ staging’ of Donaldson’s delightful characters.

Ellie Bell as Mouse
Ellie Bell as Mouse, Owen Guerin as Gruffalo

Review: My Name’s not Friday, by Jon Walter, published by David Fickling Books

My Name’s not Friday
by Jon Walter
David Fickling Books (out July 2015)

My Name’s not Friday begins with startling originality, narrated by a boy who believes he has been claimed by the Devil. From the narrowed perspective of his first appearance, blindfolded and bouncing, baggage-like, over the back of a mule, the book widens to encompass the enormous subject of slavery in a nuanced, involving story that breaks the reader’s heart, a little at a time.

Samuel is a free boy, literate, clever and devout, sold into slavery in the place of his brother, and now desperate to return to him. Finding himself robbed of his name, among slaves for the first time, he weighs up the morality of his new situation. Should he share his forbidden knowledge with the children – and the men and women – of the cabins? Should he teach them to read?

Gradually, he learns the ways of the plantation, and the whims on which so many lives depend. The owner Mrs Allen, her stepson Gerald, the pastor and elders of the town – all have total, unpredictable power, and may be gentle one day, savage the next. Driven by his painful, bright, searching faith, Samuel asks impossible questions about the workaday relationships between owner and owned.

How can there be friendship between master and slave? How can a boy who believes so passionately in God accept the cruelties perpetrated in his name? What is the worth of a life? As the Yankees creep closer, and the plantation owners grow crueller in response, Samuel weathers tragedy, disillusionment and appalling danger, without allowing his light to be extinguished.

This is a book that seizes you by the shirtfront, leads you by the hand, and slips a kindly little knife up under your ribs; original, subtle and demanding.