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Last week as an end of school treat my mum and I took my five year old son to see The Gruffalo's Child theater production at the Civic theatre in Darlington.
I have to admit I wasn't sure how a short book was going to translate into an hour's theater performance but was curious as to how it was going to be undertaken and how the magic of the book which my son loves was going to translate onto the stage. But I need not of worried it was a wonderful performance which fully engaged my son and kept true to the book but had a charm of its own.
The production is by a company called Tall Stories which specializes in children's plays and adaptions of children's stories including several by Julia Donaldson.
On entering the theater my son along with other children present had bought a Gruffalo flag and was happily waving them around and the atmosphere was of huge anticipation as they all waited and looked at the scene on stage of a wood with trees bare of leaves. On to the stage came the first performer who was dressed in brown clothes with a tail and hair in two top knots to look like ears it was the mouse but initially I have to say neither my son or I twigged it was the mouse until she stared asking the audience about cheesy snacks as she wandered around the audience.
When then the play started in earnest the Gruffalo was snoring in his cave with his child. The play then followed the story of the book with the Gruffalo telling the child that no Gruffalo should ever set foot in the deep dark wood. He also at this point gives the child a stick man he has made from wood which I personally thought was a nice clever nod to the Stick man book by Julia Donaldson. The stickman toy plays its own part in the story with the child dancing with it and using it as any child would do for reassurance.
Throughout the play the story and words of Julia Donaldson are the central theme with the verses being repeated a few times and interspersed with songs. The songs are lovely and catchy for children with lots of movement and dancing from the performers too and even a week later my son will suddenly hum or sing a few lines from one of the songs. The music to accompany the words has been cleverly composed to give each animal fox, owl and snake its own style to go with the type of personality such as fox's wide boy style has music reminiscent of Mod's and the Jam.
The costumes were something I was looking forward to and seeing how well they did the Gruffalo complete with purple prickles and poisonous wart. I have to say I have mixed feelings about the costumes the Gruffalo and Grufflao's child were quite simply outstanding and really close to the illustrations by Axel Shaffer there was no way any child in that audience could fail to recognise them whether they were 2 or about 8 as some were. However I felt that the costume of the mouse was a bit too simple and that it needed something a bit more to distinguish it. The same actor played the Gruffalo, snake, owl and fox so quick changes were necessary and he was able to step into and out of the Gruffalo as it sat on a rock. However I felt a bit disappointed by the snake and fox costume and felt with just a tiny bit more thought they would have been much more recognisable for the children. The actor wearing them was dressed in black and it was a case of slipping on a jacket and either a moustache or hat to show which character it was. The owl's cardigan with feathers and wide rim glasses was easily recognisable and fitted the bill perfectly. However snakes shiny coat was shiny silver rather than the green and black of the illustrations and my 5 year old was initially a bit puzzled by it and I think for just a colour change it would be better. The same was true of the fox rather than the lovely red/ orange of the books it was a colourless cream with a fox tail and trilby again I think to be more true to the books a colour change would be beneficial.
My son loved the production and certainly thought the cast brought the personalities and story to life for him. He was able to be completely engaged in what was happening and follow the story. This enjoyment in the play was helped by some bits of audience participation of getting people to clap along or shout out which of course thrilled all the young members of the audience. The cast were fabulous the mouse with her jumping around and wild arm movements was engaging and fun to watch. The gruffalo's child was a fun blend of juvenile bravado about meeting the big bad mouse and wanting her dad when scared. The actress was able to bring all of this character to life with abandon and thrill that made my son and I think she was everything we have read about the child in the book. The actor who fills the multiple roles threw himself into each role with gusto and was dripping in sweat by the end; he was able to have different voice tones and style for each animal that made you believe the performance with ease.
Overall I would definitely recommend this production to fans of the Gruffalo's child book the performances are excellent and the songs that are added are catchy and engaging for the children and adults alike. The play is very true to the books and loses none of the magic for the introduction of the songs and being extended. My only criticism of it is that some of the costumes could have been a bit better and would have aided the recognition of the characters for the younger members of the audience. My five year old was transfixed during the play and not restless at all and indeed I saw no other children being restless at all which I think is probably the best testimony to how good the play was for the children as they enjoyed it so much. I am giving it 4 stars only deducting one for the lack of thought in the costumes. The production is currently touring the UK so grab some tickets if comes near you.