A tale through the ages

The Gruffalo

Birmingham Town Hall


SO how do you turn a toddler’s tale in rhyme a mouse’s whisker shy of 700 words into a stage show a squeak short of an hour?

The answer is with imagination and bags of enthusiasm wrapping the original words in a tick layers of music and fun.

Thus the Fox becomes a wide-boy spiv, know what I mean, squire, a character who could have been selling Kenneth Grahame’s Mr Toad dodgy second hand cars at the other end of the deep, dark wood.

The Owl could have given Biggles a run for his money, a fighter pilot, from somewhere up t’north, in a flying jacket and helmet, spotting bandits, or angels at 10 o’clock, while the most outlandish of all was the snake.

Here we had the Latin lothario, complete with maracas and gold lame bolero and bandana, all as slippery as . . . a snake, although to be fair, snakes aren’t actually slippery at all, just smooth, which this snake certainly wasn’t.

All three had their songs and three were played in lively fashion by William Towler.

Then we had the Gruffalo himself. Smaller than one might have imagined, but with eight foot tall actors in short supply these days, it was up to Tom Crook, who did a splendid job as storyteller, to grow into the role of the big, bad, scary Gruff – without scaring the youngsters too much. Even his trip off stage among the audience was greeted more with smiles and excitement rather than shrieks of fear – this was as friendly as ogres get.

And through it all we had the tiny, relatively, Ellie Bell as the mouse, in pink gloves as her mouse feet and a long belt as a tail. Young children have vivid imaginations – the best special effects around – so if you let them know it is a mouse and it acts like a mouse then, as far as children are concerned, it’s a mouse, and Ellie gave us a very believable mouse although a moregruffalo believable tail rather than a luggage strap, and a bit more costume might have made her job easier.

The book, now in its 15th year, with only a couple of sentences for each of the creatures trying to eat the mouse, would hardly fill ten minutes on stage, reading slowly, so the story is expanded with songs and extra dialogue and it is perhaps here where the show, adapted by Toby Mitchell and directed by Olivia Jacobs, has both its strengths and its weakness.

The Gruffalo and the mouse in a battle of wits. Copyright Axel Scheffler and Macmillan Children’s Books

The original might have been for very young children but the show caters for a much wider range – a couple of lines were probably above the heads of even the older children there – which meant at times a few of the younger members in the audience became restless as older children were catered for.

Thankfully the parts that failed to fire them were short enough to be a distraction rather than a destruction of interest as the three-strong cast kept up a relentless pace, perspiration showing through shirts long before the end, so there was enough happening, some aimed at older children, some at toddlers, and enough audience participation for everyone to keep children with them through to the end.

This is a clever production in many ways and it is no mean feat turning a short children’s picture book into almost an hour’s stage show keeping the essence of the original but the set was utilitarian rather then exciting and could hardly be seen to represent a deep, dark forest.

Childrens' productions are among the most important in theatre, they have to reveal a magical world through that fourth wall if they are to hook the next generation of theatregoers and uninspiring sets are not the best of foundations for the task.

But what do adult’s know? My grandson, aged three, sat spellbound from beginning to end and declared at the end he enjoyed it, and as this was his ninth theatre visit, he knows what he is talking about - so that is good enough for me.

The Gruffalo runs at 11am and 1.30pm on Saturday, 16 August and at 11 am and with a relaxed performance, Suitable for those with an autistic spectrum condition, at 3pm

Roger Clarke


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