Category Archives: Family & children’s shows

A Christmas Carol

reviewed at Moyses Hall, Bury St Edmunds on 7 December

There ar as many different ways of staging Dickens’ seasonal story as there are twists and turns in the plot. Spinning Wheel Theatre does it with just three actors, imaginative use of puppetry and lighting effects by Becca Gibbs and director Amy Wylie’s respect for the text of the tale.

Antony Eden plays Scrooge as a man in middle-age, his revelling in the power which hoarded money and the death of his business partner Jacob Marley gives him is almost orgasmic . Alice Osmanski takes on the women’s roles and a couple of masculine ones while Samuel Norris is Scrooge’s light-hearted nephew and clerk Bob Cratchit. Scrooge’s first employer Mr Fezziwig and the Cratchit children are all neat little puppets.

The essence of the story comes from the spirits conjured up by Marley’s chain-laden ghost to emphasise to Scrooge how his greed has brought his present isolation on him and to warn of his future. The Ghost of Christmas Past is a mist of shimmering gauze with softly-lit eyes, symbolising Scrooge’s sister Fan and this lost love Belle.

A coat-hangered scarlet dressing-gown, topped with a matching fez, stands for the jollity of Christmas Present. An eyeless black shroud denotes Christmas Yet To Come when an unrepentent Scrooge is forced to face the robbery of his corpse and ill-attended burial.

Norris is on stage throughout, and gives an assured performance which allows the audience to understand as well as to dislike the man portrayed. Both Osmanski and Eden move seamlessly from one characterisation to another and carry conviction as the story unfolds.

Realism is as much a matter of the audience’s imagination – and at the Moyses Hall it faced the actors on three sides – as it is of heard words and displayed actions. This simplified but inventive staging works with Dickens and not against him, seamlessly joining the 19th with the 21 st centuries.

Four and a half-star rating.

A Christmas Carol plays at the Moyses Hall, Bury St Edmunds until 9 December and then tours village halls across East Anglia until 23 December with a performance at the John Peel Arts Centre, Stowmarket on 22 December.

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Peter Pan

(reviewed at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Steveange on 16 December).

The trouble with staging JM Barrie’s classic children’s story at Chrstmastime can be that it either tips too far into established pantomime territory, or lacks any seasonal feeling. Chris Jordan’s version, new to East Anglia, manages to tread the tightrope with a flourish. There’s a nice London street opening, with a a medley of music-hall songs and dances, led by Paul Laidlaw who we meet again later as Mrs Smee. This also serves to introduce the Darling family with the household head (Tom Lister) displaying the arrogance which will also colour his Captain Hook.

Settings are simple but effective with attractive costumes by Shelley Claridge and very well lit by Douglas Morgan. The band – tucked away stage left in a sort of theatre-box – is led by James Cleeve. The put-upon Mrs Darling is played by Sinead Long, who later transforms into the Mermaid. That bolshie fairy Tinker Bell whirls across the stage on roller-skates; Amanda Coutts balances her resentment of Wendy credibly with her affection for Peter.

Ewan Goddard depicts him as a youth with a sense of right and wrong but no real feelings of the sort which might drag him into the human world. He and Lister play off each other cleverly, with Laura Baldwin’s Wendy nicely suggesting a girl who has to take on rather more adult responsibilities than she had bargained for. Choreographers Twist & Pulse (aka Ashley Glazebrook and Glen Muphy) contribute a pair of less than competent members of Hook’s crew. With Aidan O’Neill’s Smee they lead the comedy scenes.

Laidlaw is an audience favourite at this theatre and knows just how far he can go with the involvement of the unsuspecting man selected for Mrs Smee’s amorous attention. The crocodile is a wondrous creation, and the submerged glitter pool from which the mermaid emerges in the second act is another effective touch. The four adult members of the ensemble and the juvenile performers carry off their routines with aplomb.

Peter Pan runs at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage until 22 January. Check the theatre’s website ((gordon-craig.co.uk) for performances times.

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Filed under Family & children's shows, Pantomimes & other seasonal shows, Reviews 2016

Treasure Island

(reviewed at the Avenue Theatre, Ipswich on 10 December)

Red Rose Chain likes to strike out on its own path for its Christmas show; this year it’s Joanna Carrick’s adaptation of the RL Stevenson adventure classic. Carrick’s script is faithful to the story, so her three-actor production might well be a trifle too violent and noisy for very young audience members.

We begin with Gideon (Ryan Penny), a hapless cleaner for a rehearsal space. Mandy (Claire Lloyd) soon puts him right. Considerable knockabout later, we’re into the story proper, as young Jim, the blustering Squire Trelawney and the pragmatic Dr Livesey set sail from Bristol in search of Captain Flinet’s treasure.

Of course, one of their major problems is that the seemingly helpful ship’s cook Long John Silver and his shipmates are on the same quest. Lloyd, Joel Macey and Penny swap roles and “improvise” locations at a bewildering rate, though much of the detail as well as the fast-moving narrative comes across clearly.

The ad-hoc elements of the design (steel drums, packing cases table-cloths for sails and so on) add to the illusion, as do Laura Norman’s sound effects and Jimmy Grimes’ puppets – Silver’s parrot is a particular audience favourite – but don’t get too close; he might bite!). David Newborn’s lighting adds considerable to the atmosphere, which is not an easy task given that the audience sits on three side of the acting area.

Treasure Island runs at the Avenue Theatre, Ipswich until 2 January (check the theatre website (redrosechain.com) for performance times).

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Filed under Family & children's shows, Pantomimes & other seasonal shows, Reviews 2016

The Paper Dolls

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Studio, Ipswich on 9 December 2015)

This show for very young children is based on the book by Julia Donaldson illustrated by Rebecca Cobb. Adaptation and direction are by Peter Glanville with puppet and set design by Lyndie Wright. It’s a presentation by the Little Angel Theatre and Polka Theatre – both well-known for the excellence of their productions for a juvenile audience.

The presenters are Jane Crawshaw and Samantha Sutherland, both of whom know when to let the puppets tell the story and when to step forward to let the audience into a secret. The Rosie puppet is almost blank-faced, so those familiar with the book can place their own interpretations on our heroine.

As in all good stories, likeable Rosie has a very horrid brother, all macho aggressiveness and much given to destroying anything which his sister might enjoy. Their mother tries to keep the peace (all parents will recognise the tantrums), as Rosie’s family of cut-out paper dolls (Wright has designed several sizes of these) have their adventures.

These involve trying to evade the jaws first of a toy dinosaur, then of an oven-glove crocodile and finally of a tiger. A very hungry tiger which just happens to resemble Rosie’s slippers. There is also a flower garden (cue brother’s lethal scissors) with birds and a ladybird in residence.

It makes a good introduction to the theatre for its intended audience and has enough clever design elements to keep the adults interested. Donaldson is probably the country’s uncrowned queen of fiction for this age group but Rosie’s story glides off the page and onto the stage effortlessly.

The Paper Dolls is at the New Wolsey Studio, Ipswich until 2 January.

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Filed under Family & children's shows, Reviews 2015

What the Ladybird Heard

(reviewed at the Norwich Playhouse on 24 November)

Julia Donaldson’s children’s stories are now established favourites on the stage as well as in print. Lydia Monks is the illustrator for What the Ladybird Heard and has been involved in Bek Palmer’s designs for the tour which is now in its second year. Graham Hubbard is the director and the catchy, folk idiom tunes are by Jon Fiber and Andy Shaw – of the aptly named Jollygoodtunes.

The audience comes into the auditorium to be faced with a toytown farm set – thatched farmhouse, cowshed, various outbuildings and a pond in front of a gate leading to the hilly landscape beyond. Emma Carroll is our storyteller and farmgirl Lily, introducing us to the characters with her Pied Piper-like flute.

Rosamund Hine makes a credible Farmer with Edward Way as farmhand Eddie and Matt Jopling as the slightly dim Raymond. Way and Jopling also play the burglars Hefty Hugh and Lanky Len whose attempt to steal the prize-winning cow is foiled by the ladybird of the title, a bright red spotted light which materialises at various places.

The cow and two cream-loving cats are conventional puppets, though the various farmyard animals are brought to life through an ingenious amalgamation of implements – the sheep is a fleece draped over a wheelbarrow, the horse is a bicycle and rake, the dog is a broom and so on. Very imaginative and I suspect that parents are likely to find domestic objects put to strange uses when the children return home.

What the Ladybird Heard runs at the Norwich Playhouse until 4 December.

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Filed under Family & children's shows, Reviews 2015

Groovy Greeks

(reviewed at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford on 23 October)

The voice of the king of the gods, Zeus himself, is a fitting introduction to this latest addition to the Birmingham Stage Company’s repertoire of Horrible Histories. Appropriately enough, he’s Terry Deary, actor-author of the original series of books.

In Groovy Greeks Zeus is confronted by a modern family. There’s Mum (Laura Dalgleish), bright-as-a-button daughter Alice (Hannah Boyce) who is just as inquisitive as her Lewis Carroll namesake, somewhat know-all Dad (Charlie Buckland) and stroppy son Rob (Ashley Bowden).

They are invited (threatened? challenged?) by Zeus to enter the world of the highly competitive ancient Greeks. Troy and its ten-year siege is the appropriate beginning. Rob confuses Homer the poet with the Simpsons’ patriarch which allows for some clever cartoon-derived headgear designed, as are the projections by Jacqueline Trousdale.

The harsh, military-focussed city-state of Sparta, the Olympic Games and the rise of Athens are the next to tax our quartet’s survival skills. Slavery was a fact of everyday life in the ancient world; there’s a timely statistical reminder that it’s still prevalent today.

Horrible Histories on stage wouldn’t live up to their name without Bogglevision, as devised by Whizzbang 3D Production. The Minotaur lurks in a distorted labyrinth to claim his tribute of young human flesh. His vanquishing by Theseus is attended by some fright-inducing spiders as well as other monsters.

Both the historical encounters with the Persian empire – Leonides’ doomed but heroic defence of the Thermopylae Pass and the vital sea battle at Salamis are alive with hurled spears and rocks (I challenge you not to duck!), the foam and hiss of oar-beaten waves and the crunch of armoured prows caving in wooden triremes.

Tere’s a hilarious Britain’s Got Talentt-style contests for the audience’s favour with Aphrodite’s sexy show-girl routine easily out-voting Poseidon’s trident-waving rock star or Athena’s pop singer attempt. Our time travellers return to the present-day having learned a lot about the past and the way in which it continues to inform the present.

You see, history really can be great fun. It just takes imagination.

Groovy Greeks runs in repertoire with Incredible Invaders at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford until 24 Octover and also at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge between 26 and 31 October.

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Incredible Invaders


 
(reviewed at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford on 20 October)

 

Horrible Histories, in print, on television or – best of all – live on stage throw a particularly well-disguised punch at their public. You learn something while enjoying the experience. Take Incredible Invaders, for instance.

England from 56BC to that final lethal invasion of AD1066 covers a lot of ground, both literally and metaphorically. Linking it all is an outspoken British girl called Mavis (Hannah Boyce) who has the audience immediately on her side as her potential sacrifice by the Druids is interrupted by the Roman army (well, just two soldiers) – but who can afford a cast of thousands these days?

Neal Foster has written the scripts as well as directing the fast-moving action. But it’s the work of set, costume and screen image designer Jacqueline Trousdale that really takes centre stage. The projections give us a three-dimension set even before the second half intervention of the Whizzbang Bogglevision sequences.

After the Romans (in retrospect probably the best of the invaders) and the suitably wild revolt by Boudicca (Laura Dalgleish) come the Saxons with some particularly nasty execution practices (Foster doesn’t veer away from these). Ashley Bowden and Charlie Buckland stand in for Hengest and Horsa as the fragmented Britannia succumbs to a different sort of brute strength.

The Vikings, those Norsemen who also colonised Normandy, arrive in their longboats, one of which has a marvellous, slightly camp talking figurehead. King Alfred (Bowden) now takes centre stage with his possibly mythical cake-burning (Arthur has already been dismissed as mere legend). We may think of him as a good and just ruler but Foster makes clear that late 9th century justice had its own savageries.

And so to the Normans and the Battle of Hastings, flowing in Bogglevision straight out of the Bayeux Tapestry. Adults in the mid-week audience may have thought that their attendance was something of a chore. My impression is that they revelled in it all just as much as the children did.

Incredible Invaders plays in repertory with Groovy Greeks at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford until 20 October and at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge between 27 and 31 October.

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Hetty Feather

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 29 September)

How do you create something which appeals to all age groups, from nursery school through to great-grand parents? One good starting point is to take a well-loved book and then work live theatre’s own very special magic on it. That’s what happens in the Emma Reeves’ stage version of Jacqueline Wilson’s Hetty Feather, now on a second major UK tour.

Director Sally Cookson and designer Katie Sykes set it in a circus. Not the slick, balletic modern version but a tinsel tawdry one typical of the late 19th century. Foundling Hetty (Phoebe Thomas) has red hair, a vivid imagination and an enormous amount of indignation as she seeks to establish her own proper identity and reclaim the comfort and nurture of a real family. The last one seems to offer itself when she’s taken in by baby farmer Peg (Sarah Goddard).

But Peg has to return her foundlings to the Hospital once they reached an age when they can be taught and sent out as servants (the girls) or cannon fodder (the boys). Hetty and Saul (Nik Howden), her special friend among her “brothers”, sneak into a circus where bareback rider Madame Adeline ((Nikki Warwick) is the star attraction and whose red hair prompts Hetty to decide that this must surely be her real mother.

She isn’t, of course. Hetty’s “picturing” has led her, not for the first time, down the wrong track entirely. it’s all beautifully and sincerely conveyed by Thomas – the feistiest of heroines and guaranteed to win masculine as well as feminine hearts – and Goddard, who doubles the other mother figure of Ida. Warwick comes into her own in the second act and there’s an abrasive sketch of Matron Bottomly by Matt Costain. Mark Kane plays Gideon, partially crippled and vindictive with it.

The circus skills flow naturally between this talented cast; the prancing circus ponies and long-trunked elephant are particularly enjoyable. musicians Seamus H Carey and Luke Potter – instrumentalists and commentators in the clown-Deburau tradition – provide the accompaniment (the composer-arranger is Benji Bower). The folk song “Over the hills and far away” haunts the story. It’s partly a metaphor for Hetty’s longings but also an invitation to the audience to loose its own imagination fo two hours. Or even for a little bit longer.

Hetty Feather run at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 3 October and can also be seen at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend between 23 and 25 October.

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James and the Giant Peach

(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 15 August)

Roald Dahl’s story in the David Wood adaptation is a perennial favourite with young audiences. Older children and family members can also enjoy this clever new staging by Matthew Cullum in which the design elements by Tina Bramman, the lighting by Mark Dymock and the music by Grant Olding play an equally important role.

The audience is fully involved, with chases through the auditorium, passing a huge peach-coloured beach-ball to and from the actors and responding to the string, woodwind, brass and percussion instruments adeptly handled by the cast. There is a clever use of puppetry, with a voracious seagull a clear favourite and a slightly spooky scarecrow man (who gives James the magic seeds) vying with a brace of sea-monsters for second place.

James Le Lacheur is a likeable and credibly boyish James, assisted in his escape from his horrible aunts Sponge and Spiker by insect friends. Josie Dunn is the Cossack-style Miss Spider, Dale Superville the slightly boastful Centipede and Peter Ashmore the suave fiddle-playing Grasshopper. Then there’s Kate Adams’ Miss Marple of a Ladybird, Matthew Rutherford’s lugubrious Earthworm and Barbara Hockaday as just about everyone else.

This production is one in artistic director Daniel Buckroyd’s Made in Colchester season. At a time of year when most theatres in East Anglia are occupied with more adult, even florid, fare a long run for a family-friendly show is to be welcomed. And this is a very good one.

James and the Giant Peach continues its run at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 30 August.

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The Tiger Who Came to Tea

(reviewed at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford on 10 May)

It’s hard to believe that David Wood’s adaptation of The Tiger Who Came to Tea has been around since 2008. The Nick Brooke-Kenny Wax production seems to have been refurbished for the current tour; children who know every syllable and every picture from Judith Kerr’s now-classic story won’t be disappointed in seeing and hearing it all in three dimensions.

Susie Caulcutt’s set and costumes are colourful, and there’s an excellent mask and full furry body for the eponymous tiger. Benjamin Wells has the height for the part and carries off the courtly bows in greeting and farewell while allowing us that frisson which such a large non-domesticated feline needs to evoke. Wells is also the somewhat dozy father, who really does need his wife (Jenanne Redman) and young daughter Sophie (Abbey Norman) to work hard if he is to get to work on time, the doddering postman and glib salesman milkman.

We all know that the incursion of milkman and postman are there just to build up to the moment when the tiger insinuates himself into the kitchen, but it’s cleverly handled and works. Wood’s music and lyrics are a catchy as ever and suit Emma Clayton’s choreography well. Norman is a delight as the little girl who loves the toy kitten which has been her uncle’s birthday gift but is also fascinated by the tiger’s incursion.

The Tiger Who Came to Tea runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge between 10 and 13 May and at the Watford Colosseum 11-12 July.

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Room on the Broom

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 5 May)

Tall Stories Theatre Company does precisely what the name suggests. Currently on tour is its adaptation of the popular children’s book by Julia Donaldson and Alex Scheffler – Room on the Broom. For my money, any stage show which glues its very young audience to its seats for just over an hour concentrating throughout on the characters and their adventures fully justifies itself.

Olivia Jacobs is the director and Morgan Largo the designer. The puppets (of which more later) are by Yvonne Stone. Four actors are on stage (and occasionally in the auditorium) when it begins; house lights are lowered slowly as we discover that some faulty map-reading has caused four friends to spend the night in a forest clearing. It’s not exactly a case of peaceful slumbers, what with snoring and a general inability to settle down comfortably.

Is it a dream then, or even a nightmare? The two girls transform into the broomstick-riding witch (Yvette Clutterbuck) and her know-all ginger cat (Emma MacLennan), a somewhat selfish feline – but then, are they all? They set off in search of a dragon, acquiring as broom passengers the friendliest tail-wagging, slobber-jawed dog you can hope to encounter (beautifully handled by David Garrud), a green-plumaged bird (handled by Daniel Foxsmith) and an acrobatic frog with a line in grande jetée to put Nijinsky to shame (Garrud).

Various catastrophes, not to mention the dragon (Foxsmith), are met and overcome, as the ill-assorted broomstick riders learn to give as well as to take. In the end the witch earns a new, super-charged broomstick, all twinkling lights, knobs, bells and whistles. Dawn breaks, and the sleepers find themselves alone. Well, it was all a dream… wasn’t it?

Room on the Broom runs at the Arts Theatr, Cambridge until 9 May. it also plays at the Westfield Auditorium, Hatfield (4-5 July), the Palace Theatre, Westcliff (10-12 August) and the Watford Colosseum (14-15 August).

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