Parents keen to brighten a child’s weekend need look no further. Tall Stories, the theatrical troupe that specialises in children’s storybooks, have taken up residency in the West End until January 2017. The Gruffalo is back.
The show first opened on 12 May 2001 – just 18 months after Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s charming tale was first published – and it shows no signs of wilting. That’s because Tall Stories’ shows are always an excellent introduction to theatre for young’uns.
For one thing, their shows draw attention to their own theatricality – one of their trademarks is opening the action by showing the audience what they are doing. And what they are doing, essentially, is dressing up and having fun.
So before the story begins, Ellie Bell’s mouse draws on her red nose, applies her tail (a length of rope) and flaps out her mousey ears. Job done.
As most parents know all too well, the story goes as so: Mouse goes into the deep dark wood and fends off the predatory advances of a fox, an owl and a snake by saying she is off the meet a Gruffalo. Of course there is, says Mouse, no such thing as a Gruffalo until she (I say “she” because she is very much a girl mouse in this production) actually meets the creature she believes she has conjured.
What do do? Our pragmatic heroine takes the Gruffalo back through the wood and show the predators what she was talking about. They flee in terror and the Gruffalo believes they are scared of the mouse. It is a story with charm, economy and an essential wisdom that feels like an ancient fable. Little wonder the book has been entrancing children since 1999, selling 13.5m copies worldwide.
The stage narrative is peppered with plenty of zany little tricks and some original songs that (and here’s another trademark feature of Tall Stories) play on various musical styles (credit for Andy Fiber and Andy Shaw of Jolly Good Tunes for these).
So Charlie Guest’s Fox sings a Ska-style tune in keeping with his wide-boy characterisation of the role, while the Owl (also by Guest, who plays all three predators), an RAF-type, sings a military-style anthem. His snake is a maracas-wielding narcissist – he reminded me a little of the bird character in Tall Stories’ production of another Donaldson and Scheffler story, Room on the Broom. Both are enormous fun.
The cast really put their all into the hour-long show, which will keep the children spellbound and is hard to fault.
The Gruffalo is on at the Lyric Theatre until January 8 2017