Book favourites take to the stage

Charlie, Lola and Marv

Charlie, Lola and Marv in their extremely new play

Charlie and Lola’s Extremely New Play

Birmingham Rep

***

ANYTHING which gets children  into a theatre and using their minds and imagination has to be a good thing.

After all if the theatre bug does not grab the next generation, today’s toddlers and pre-teens, there are going to be an awful lot of unemployed actors and former theatres in a few years time.

Many kids these days watch too much television, which in some households has become an electronic pacifier, so there is an irony of sorts that it is an adaptation of a TV series, and, to be fair, a collection of books by Lauren Child, that is helping to open up the imagination of children to the magical world of theatre.

This production from Watershed is a sort of Avenue Q meets Play School, with the characters represented by cut out, 1D puppets, echoing the simple collage style of the books and animated TV series rather than going for technical wizardry in the world of puppets.

If there is a fault it is that the puppets, probably life size, or thereabouts, for a four-year-old Lola and her older brother, must seem awfully tiny to any small children at the back of theatres, a long way from the stage.

It is fine for the more intimate confines of a studio production, but perhaps a tad bigger puppets in a theatre would be helpful, mindful of course, that the puppets have to be operated by puppeteers. The puppeteers, incidentally, did a fine job working to a recorded soundtrack and surely deserved a credit in the programme!

Not only did they bring the puppets to life, they created snow scenes, swam giant fish through the audience, and built pirate ships and all manner of things from the stage blocks extracting all manner of simple but effective props crammed intoLola and Sizzle hidden compartments. It might have been nice to acknowledge their contribution.

The fact they worked in silence to a soundtrack did tend to make them anonymous though, begging the question of why the production didn't take a cue out of Avenue Q's books and have puppeteers doing the talking to bring more life and intimacy to the show. People very quickly forget the actors and see just the characters talking and acting which I suspect would be more effective than the current, somewhat disassociated, miming.

Lola and Marv's dog Sizzle - who can do anything, including getting lost when Lola and Lotta take him for a walk!

 

Moan over, Charlie and Lola is one of the more intelligent children’ series, hence the sacksful of awards both here and abroad, for the books. They deal with questions which are important to youngsters, everyday things such as best friends, playing, looking after a dog, falling out, and, in this case, the ever constant in the show, the seasons and when will is snow again.

The show is devoid of big bold action, stunning special effects or video, or even bags of colour and there is no audience participation demanding waves, claps or shouts when characters appear. Instead we have a play which encourages an audience to listen and think about what is going on, which, to be honest, was a bit wordy for some and did make a few youngsters fidgety and restless – don’t they ever have stories read to them at home?

Autumn brought a leaf fall from the roof over the auditorium with hundreds of tissue paper leaves in autumnal colours falling upon the audience – what some little girls will do with the handfuls of leaves they had collected when they get home is a mystery in itself.

Not to be outdone winter went for a blizzard from snow machines in the roof although the snowfall was a bit patchy with large areas of the auditorium snow free which is a pity – kids want to be snowed on not just see it falling.

Designer Laura McEwen has produced a wonderfully flexible set with a circular video screen in a back wall and moveable blocks which can create Charlie and Lola’s home, bedroom, a park, a pond, a pirate ship as well as track the seasons with the help of a stylised tree. And director Roman Stefanski has kept up a good pace, which is important as children can become bored without a hat even needing to drop if the tempo drops.

Apart from Charlie and Lola we meet Marv, Charlie’s best friend, and his dog Sizzles, as well as Lola’s best friend, Lotta, and new girl in Lola’s class at school, Evie.

The play combines a collection of stories from the books with the school play about the seasons as the running theme with the play ending with the school production.

At an hour and a quarter, including interval, it is not going to tax youngsters too much, but perhaps grown up are not the best people to judge this.

My three-year-old grandson, who knows what he is talking about after his eighth theatre trip, sat mesmerised by the whole thing and he thoroughly enjoyed it, so much so he was quite disappointed when he discovered it had ended and we weren't filing out for a second interval - so who am I to argue. To 31-05-14

Roger Clarke

29-05-14

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