Review: trio of kids theatre

A trio of impressive shows for children in Blackpool this month has shown there’s more for kids than fast thrills and sugar highs in the town

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Three performances of the English National Ballet’s My First Ballet: Swan Lake and a four-day run for the Children’s Touring Partnership’s adaptation of The Jungle Book visited Blackpool’s Grand Theatre in the same week while the Winter Gardens hosts Shrek, The Musical – a West End production now on tour for a 13-date run.

Both venues are part of Culture Blackpool – a project for which the main arts institutions in the seaside town have joined up to promote the town’s “B Side” – that is, the cultural offer lesser known than the town’s main tourist attractions. At a launch event for the partnership in January this year Ruth Eastwood, chief executive of Blackpool’s Grand Theatre, said it is a priority for her to get the best children’s shows to visit the venue. Theatre can be a transformative experience for children, she said, and she wants to ensure the best is on offer, even if it means the theatre has empty seats. Happily, bums on seats didn’t appear to be a problem at any of these productions.

Young dancers from the English National Ballet School were put through the paces as professional performers on Friday 6 May, but by the third and final performance of the day they showed no signs of fatigue. The show was an hour in length and included an interval – which was a good excuse for ice cream, although possibly broke attention spans rather than aided them. The narrator – engaging and relatable, dressed in jeans and trainers – was a welcome addition to the complex story, which was modified for young viewers and explored themes of friendship, forgiveness and honesty. Watching my four-year-old count perfectly the number of pirouettes lead dancer Imogen Ginty performed – 14 – and my six year old deduce that in just two more of her short lifetimes she will be the same age as her, and therefore likely pirouetting for adoring audiences, only reaffirmed the educational value in a trip to the theatre over SATs revision.

The kids’ best bits: “When the swan and the prince looked into each others’ eyes and loved each other” and “The prince’s birthday party”.

Hot on the ballet school’s light heals were the prowling cast of The Jungle Book to perform Jessica Swale’s musical adaptation of the family favourite on 8 May. The story itself is quite different from The Jungle Book anyone who was raised on Disney films rather than late-Victorian children’s books might recognise. Swale returned to the Rudyard Kipling text, which was in fact two volumes of jungle stories, set in India where he was born. Swale brings the tale up to date as a celebration of diversity and an exploration of growing up in a place you at times feels you don’t belong.

Kaziah Joseph captivated young viewers as Mowgli – with my two becoming double-intrigued on learning the man-cub was played by a woman. Dyfrig Morris provided light moments as Balloo and, with Deborah Oyelade, who played the enchantingly feminine (and feminist) Bagheera, made a magical double act. Bretton Hall graduate Rachel Dawson’s northern lilt as both Kaa and Grey was a welcome addition to an impressive ensemble, which included live music from the actor-musicians and earworm songs.

The kids’ best bits: “The song at the end that went ‘Same sun/Same moon’” and “When Mowgli went ‘Awooooooo’”.

The bigger stage of the nearby Opera House at the Winter Gardens was necessary for the blockbuster DreamWorks Theatrical’s production of Shrek – The Musical on 16 May. The anti-fairytale matched the film version loyally as it followed the green ogre and his loyal steed Donkey on their quest to rescue Princess Fiona, but the theme of accepting difference was given extra emphasis in this stage adaptation. It seemed particularly resonant as the evil Lord Farquaad rode his horse called Brexit around Duloc, chasing out all the fairytale characters and introducing a uniform for the town’s people, only for the madcap bunch to rise up to “fly their freak flag high”.

Amelia Lily proved her musical theatre credentials as the all-singing, all-dancing Princess Fiona, who, along with Marcus Ayton – showcasing his comedy chops as Donkey – stole the show.

From the massive puppeteering feat of the dragon (a four-man job), to the basic stage trickery to make Lord Farquaad appear short (props to Samuel Holmes for acting on bended knee), Shrek offered an enchanting abundance of illusions in a touching and easy to follow tale.

The kids’ best bits: “When they sang I’m A Believer at the end,” and “When he trumped”.

More to come…

Until 27 May, Shrek – The Musical, Winter Gardens

20 June, Northern Ballet’s Ugly Duckling, Grand Theatre

23-24 June, Peppa Pig’s Adventure, Grand Theatre

11-15 Sept, Madagascar – A Musical Adventure from DreamWorks Theatrical, Winter Gardens

25-29 Sept, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Grand Theatre

6-7 Oct, Teletubbies Live, Grand Theatre

7-30 Dec, The Wizard of Oz, Winter Gardens

7 Dec-6 Jan, Beauty and the Beast, Grand Theatre

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