Grand Theatre, Blackpool
The Gruffalo said that no Gruffalo should ever set foot in the deep dark wood. This is the beginning of the famous Julia Donaldson book, The Gruffalo’s Child, but it takes about 10 minutes to reach this point in the stage adaptation, setting the pace for the 55 minute children’s show.
Tall Stories, the children’s theatre company that has successfully adapted various Donaldson books as well as producing original work, employed creative costumes, minimal but effective set design and clever lighting techniques to bring the familiar tale to life on the Grand Theatre’s stage in Blackpool. It was an auditorium that swamped the small audience – both in stature and turnout – and at times the cast of three struggled to hold its attention but they maintained composure throughout, performing their catchy songs and encouraging participation to bring the wandering gaze of toddlers back to centre stage.
As a parent I have seen various children’s productions. When done well, such as the Northern Ballet’s brilliant Tortoise and the Hare earlier this year, they are brilliant family fun. Others you endure for the sake of children. The Gruffalo’s Child falls into the latter category. Donaldson’s books are brilliant the first 100 times you read them, then they become a repetitive slog, and the stage adaptation draws this process out. The story follows the same pattern as the original Gruffalo book – the Gruffalo’s child meets a snake, an owl and a fox and has almost identical conversations with each. But Tall Stories’ original songs and interpretation of each character’s personality added variety and the climax of story – when the mouse tricks the child with its shadow – was a welcome change of pace that entertained adults and children alike.
It’s perhaps unfair to compare this to the Northern Ballet productions, in which the performers have years of professional dance training on their side. But Catriona Mackenzie (Mouse) in particular delivered a comparable physical performance as she moved nimbly around the stage, seamlessly using the set as her prop. She is well placed as the narrator of the tale as she seemed to hold the production together. Sophie Alice (The Gruffalo’s Child) played a convincing child but there is an unease that creeps upon me whenever I see grown adults playing children and it was only heightened by the strange cockney accent she adopted. Similar irks with inflection came from Andrew Mudie (Gruffalo/predators) but while his performance of Snake – inexplicably interpreted as Spanish – would make his fellow species recoil, as Owl (Scottish) he achieved the humour he was aiming for.
Putting adult cynicism to one side and considering The Gruffalo’s Child from the perspective of the audience it was created for, the adaptation had all the ingredients for an enjoyable trip to the theatre. It has enough physicality and stage presence to capture the imagination of very tiny patrons, slapstick humour and a range of silly voices to keep them engaged, and a familiar story with a predictable pattern to build on their anticipation. Perfect children’s entertainment but not necessarily fun for all the family.