Sarah and Duck’s Big Top Birthday – Review – West Yorkshire Playhouse

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sarah and duck review west yorkshire playhouse

Sarah and Duck’s Big Top Birthday – Review

West Yorkshire Playhouse, October 2017

by Matt Callard

Kids’ TV is a minefield. One minute they’re watching something so anodyne and lightweight you think it might blow away in a light breeze. The next, some superhero thing sneaks its way on to the screen and it’s all-out war for 15 minutes.

‘Twas always thus, of course. My sister still has nightmares about Noseybonk from 80s kids’ art programme Jigsaw, and there’s always been more dross than gloss. Which means when the occasional jewel gleams out, it’s worth cherishing.

BBC’s Sarah and Duck is one such jewel. A bright, quiet journey into the psyche of children, it centres around young Sarah and her ever-present wordless companion Duck. It’s playful, funny, creative and, occasionally, downright surreal. Indeed, at one point in this neat stage conversion Sarah tells a joke: “Why are bus stops so sad? Because they never get on the bus.” Quite.

sarah and duck review west yorkshire playhouse stage play

“No half measures”

Transferring it to the stage cannot have been easy. On TV, Roger Allam’s brilliant narration acts as the ‘parent’, cajoling, teasing and comforting Sarah as she goes on her adventures and he’s here in voiceover mode again, which must be a technical nightmare, but you have to listen very hard to hear the joins with the on-stage dialogue.

The stage set is big, bold and familiar to all the children present, with terrific life-size puppets of all the show regulars, including an adult-size Scarf Lady. There are no half measures here, the characters are full-on facsimiles – you won’t have to be telling your kids who’s-who at this production, thankfully.

The puppeteers join in with songs and interact with the puppet characters. There’s a good amount of audience interaction (without it ever becoming pantomime). Plus, there’s good use of lighting and a nice smattering of visual effects.

sarah and duck review west yorkshire playhouse scarf lady

“Jaunty”

There are some caveats. I – and my toddler – prefer our  theatre in small slices. Why one long act? Why not give us an interval, change the stage set-up and let the parents get on with the practicalities of toilet, drink, recharge?

This would, at the very least, save the scramble for a kiddie loo break in the final quarter and ease the restlessness that spills over towards the end.

Plus, at one stage the puppeteers construct a Big Top in time to some jaunty music. It’s mildly diverting, but the kids definitely want the characters back on stage as soon as possible – the director should sense that. So it’s an odd decision to have a rogue gale come and tear down the big top so that the puppeteers can perform exactly the same building routine all over again.

Quibbles aside, Sarah and Duck is children’s theatre with its heart and soul in exactly the right places – and a worthy add-on to a modern kids’ TV classic. You won’t leave disappointed.

images: Pamela Raith

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