At the end of this revival of The Gruffalo, the eight-year old sitting next to me, seeing my pen and pad, touched me on the arm and said gravely, ‘I thought it was very good. Will you write that?’ And so I have…and I am tempted to leave this review there, for if her age-group were happy – and they certainly seemed to be, judging from the clamorous applause – then what more needs to be said? However, for better or worse, a review needs at least needs to give a sense of the occasion, and in this case appraise how this much-performed show has been updated in its latest manifestation in the bling and boudoir-pink setting of the Lyric Theatre. There it stays until January when a further UK Tour beckons.
The Gruffalo has been with us since 1999 and the first stage adaptation came along only two years later. It became a great success very quickly whether as a bedtime story that brought repose to children and relief to their parents, or as an animation and stage phenomenon that has crossed cultures and continents. It is worth pausing a moment to ask why. Some fairy stories succeed through the brilliance of the writing that actively evokes a fantasy world effortlessly to the imagination. This is not the case here where the writing in the original was in fact quite flat and unadventurous. Instead what we have is an example of the genre that gets the readers (and the audience here) to do most of the work. The long-deferred arrival of the Gruffalo sets everyone’s minds racing to put together the long list of hideous characteristics that comprise this creature. So by the time of his appearance we are self-primed to be impressed. All the usual triggers of suspense are invoked.. the threat of the dark forest, the plucky, vulnerable mouse with only a ‘nutmap’ to guide her, who then sees off by wit the diversity of predators and threats she meets along the way.. all of this is familiar territory from the anthology of children’s literature. But it is the threat of the unknown that provides the drive to the story, together with a moralizing point that one should be careful for what one wishes for: the invention of the Gruffalo comes back to bite the mouse as much as the predators in the forest. We should not forget either that the success of the original story is as much visual as verbal – it is Axel Scheffler’s illustrations that set the tone for the story and determine the visual choices of all subsequent adaptations. It is thanks to him that the fearful aspect of the Gruffalo also contrives from first appearance to be benign and quirky rather than threatening. This more than anything else gets the balance right between mystery and terror on the one side, and the hidden sweetness behind a fearful aspect on the other. Young imaginations nourished on Beauty and the Beast and other fables do the rest of the work. This strategy is as old as Aesop but crucially it uses full means of modern media to reach out to young audiences.
This new production has a lot to recommend it. Tall Stories, the creative team behind this revival, has an impressive record in adapting children’s literature to the stage and their qualities are very much to the fore here. There is plenty of dynamic movement in all the scenes, which provides much to look at when in fact little happens (though much is of course threatened). All the predators, whether fox, owl and snake, get physically engaged with the mouse and the story teller so that you can often forget that there are only three actors on the stage. Also the dynamism of movement extends to a determined involvement to break down the ‘fourth wall’ and involve the audience in the best pantomime tradition. There is a lovely moment near the end of the show when the Gruffalo invades the auditorium and invites the audience to save ‘a poor harmless Gruffalo’. Who knows, there may be some children in the front rows who will later in life date a love affair with theatre from that special intervention? The costumes also deserve praise, especially the Gruffalo suit, which is something of a miracle of the quilter’s art.
That said there are a couple of aspects that do disappoint. The new set may be functional and flexible and provide plenty of opportunities for disappearance and reappearance, but in reality it is a series of literal-minded sliding cutouts that fails to generate any sense of forest atmosphere. I was at a low-budget performance of Hansel and Gretel in Peckham a few years back that achieved more simply by hanging huge numbers of green tinsel streamers from the ceiling of the performance space.. the shimmer and rustle did the rest of the work. It is also something of a shame that the musical numbers rarely rise above the pedestrian. Again the work is perfectly functional and professional. The four-square melodies allow the actors to deliver a lot of patter text and set up easy repetitions with which the audience can readily engage. It seems something of a missed opportunity, however, not to do more to use music to probe the more gentle and pathetic aspects of the story.
The three roles are drawn from a pool of six actors, and all parts were played more than competently. Ellie Bell as the Mouse started a bit too slowly and did not grab the audience’s attention initially, though the two-dimensional text at the start was partly to blame. However, she developed her part well in the confrontations with the predators, showing wit and animation the role needs. Owen Guerin combined the roles of the Gruffalo and the awkward combination of ancillary roles in the earlier scenes. He brought rugged presence and a balancing diffident charm to the role of the Gruffalo and some talented impersonations to the other parts. The most testing roles, and the ones that give most scope for development of character, were taken by Timothy Richey; and he did so with flair and relish. It is these roles where different levels of humour and in-jokes can be inserted that will reach the adults in the audience as much as the children. So in many ways he has the most work to do and certainly the largest number of quick costume changes. The most successful of these in terms of wit and movement was as the snake.. part sinuous Spanish dancer, part the cunning witty seducer in a line traceable back to Milton, and from him to Eden.
Matilda this show is not – the original and the adaptation are thin fare in comparison with the disturbing and multi-layered creations of Dahl and his later creative adapters. But on its own terms this show achieves exactly what it sets out to do and fully deserves the appreciation of reviewers, whether aged eight or eighty.