Eric Carle’s beautifully illustrated books have enchanted children for years, but a stage show of his work? How could that work? Well, put your worries to one side. This one, adapted by director Jonathan Rockefeller and aimed at children between two and six, works very nicely indeed.
The key thing is capturing those beguiling colours from Carle’s unique collage style in rendering animals from four of his stories – The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse, Mister Seahorse, The Very Lonely Firefly and of course The Very Hungry Caterpillar. In that respect the amiable performing troupe succeed magnificently, even if some of the puppets lack mechanical complexity (more on that later).
So we open with a painter, one of the three cast members, dressed in stripy shirt and the kind of dungarees that seem obligatory for children’s theatre performers. He magically recreates a horse, a crocodile, a polka-dotted donkey and other creatures from the Carle canon, allowing the young audience to enter the imaginative world of the creative person before the explosion of colour.
The Mister Seahorse story is beautifully told and also has something to teach the little ‘uns about the intricacies of fish spawning. But the spectacle is the thing here and in this sequence the puppets are probably the best in show. The sea creatures dart, slip and glide across the stage; it’s a delight to see them actually move like the animals themselves.
They also look magnificent – the Sea Horses and the Lion Fish in particular are things of absolute charm and loveliness.
In later stories, the puppets’ lack of manoeuvrability means that they don’t quite have the animalistic verve and life when bounding around on legs or wings or whatever it is that caterpillars use. This certainly isn’t War Horse, but they are beautiful.
The story of The Very Lonely Firefly is told on a darkened stage. The spectacle of fireworks are brilliantly created with some clever trickery with string, in what proves to be a fitting prelude to the main act – our caterpillar friend.
His journey from egg to caterpillar munching through cake and watermelon doesn’t need to be repeated here, but it’s re-told with charm before his riotous explosion into the butterfly. It’s worth the wait and a truly magical culmination to a winning hour of theatre.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show is at the Ambassadors Theatre until Sunday 8 January 2017