Sunday, April 07, 2013

Scary monsters and super creeps - review of The Gruffalo's Child

The Gruffalo’s Child, at The Corn Exchange, Newbury, on Friday, March 22 to Sunday, March 24

LIKE the best fairy tales, a lot of young children’s picture books have a slightly scary slant to them; but enough is left to the imagination, and judicious interpretation of a handy grown up, to take the edge off any fear that they may induce.

It is when these tales are transposed into moving images, be it in cartoons, on stage or live action television and film, where the challenges arise, of how to keep the fun frights in, without giving little people the major heeby jeebies. The 2009 Spike Jonze film of Where The Wild Things Are; I’m not sure how much it frightened the children I saw it with, but the constant sense that young Max could be eaten by the beasts he rules over at any minute put the terrors into me.

And so, Julia Donaldson’s much-loved books, The Gruffalo and The Gruffalo’s Child, set similar challenges. As monsters go, The Gruffalo is rather cuddly, but let’s face facts: he eats anthropomorphic mice. And owls, foxes and snakes. He is not a beast to be toyed with, despite his cutey-pie face.

In its three-hand hour-long production of The Gruffalo’s Child, Tall Stories gets the balance just right. The Gruffalo spends most of the show asleep, and all of it sat down, as he cuddles his daughter and warns her about the Big Bad Mouse (the never-seen Mrs Gruffalo is presumably out gathering normal-sized mice for breakfast). One or two audience members let out a bit of a wail when he first appeared - a large three-dimensional Gruffalo strikes an imposing figure and bound to create a bit of a stir on first meeting - but it all settled down pretty quickly.

Against his dad’s wise advice, the Child ventures into the deep, dark woods to find the fabled Big Bad Mouse, meeting along the way the snaked-hipped (of course) Snake, RAF officer Owl and a spivving Fox,  all of whom are tempted to turn the mini Gruffalo into their favourite dish until the mouse is mentioned and they make a sharp exit.

Zingy songs and fast-paced scenes added plenty of fun to neutralise the bleakness of the snowy, windy woods with its clawing trees lit by a large, heavy moon, and the three performers worked their socks off to make a jolly old time of it for audience members young and old. The book didn’t feel stretched for the sake of dramatic effect, with each of the predatory animals (played by the same actor) being given a strong character to play with and get the audience involved.

This was a production that treated the source material, and children’s intelligence, with full respect, without veering either towards mawkishness or nightmare-inducing horror. I’m going to let you into a secret now - neither me or my own child (not a Gruffalo) are massive fans of Julia Donaldson’s books - but after seeing this show, we will be giving them another go. Although she will now expect me to do all the voices.

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News on March 28, 2013

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