The Gruffalo – Review – West Yorkshire Playhouse
By Matt Callard, July 2017
Kids are the harshest critics. My three-year-old son shows his full emotional range from excited, to engrossed, to restless, to – well – bored during this one-act adaptation of Julia Donaldson’s iconic children’s tale of cunning, determination and triumph over adversity.
To say he knows the book well is a bit like saying the Archbishop of Canterbury is familiar with the Lord’s Prayer, such is his devotion. Like thousands of other kids – and most of those present at the Playhouse – The Gruffalo is a key early text for this lover of a little brown mouse who uses its nous to escape a trio of unsavoury woodland creatures before encountering the most unsavoury of all.
So why, then, does he ask to go and play on the stairs about 20-minutes in? It could be he’s not yet capable of making the full imaginative leap and ‘seeing’ the actors as the animals they are playing. It’s a tricky jump when he’s so over-familiar with the animal characters in the book (there are no animal masks on display here).
“Headlong rush to get back to the next song”
Or could it be he’s confused by the additional asides and flurry of songs that depart from the sacred book? A necessity for show length (The Gruffalo book is a slim item), but occasionally an insult to the beautiful, simple flow of Donaldson’s narrative.
Or perhaps it’s the same thing that I find irritating. The noise. The screechiness. This ‘Gruffalo’ does not relent in its aural assault. Where is the pacing? Where are the quiet lulls before the storms? Where is the mystery and danger and big, brooding silence of the book’s most important hidden character, the deep, dark wood itself?
Sure, there’s occasional mood lighting and the odd reference to the cold and dark – but there’s also a headlong rush to get back to the next song and dance set piece. Kids love those eerie silences. They immerse themselves into them. Surely here is a chance for the Playhouse’s technical experts to indulge in a spot of scene shifting and atmospherics, yet the set remains frustratingly static throughout. Even adult eyes crave a change of scenery, never mind the much more restless minds of the kids.
“Fun and menace”
The cast sell it well, however. Lauren Scott-Berry is an engaging and impish mouse, while Alastair Chisholm delivers the three predators with just the right balance of fun and menace, despite his snake character looking curiously like a summertime Window Twankey. The songs, too, are mostly good and seem to hold the children’s attention.
It’s perhaps no surprise that the entrance of The Gruffalo is the highlight. But is should also be noted that he has the best costume. Afterwards, when I ask my three-year-old critic which part he liked the best he says: “The Gruffalo – because it looked like The Gruffalo.”
But until someone solves the costume-mouth-heat-head dilemma full on replicas of the book characters are impractical. Although, if the comments section on this review of the Playhouse’s Rudolf from last Christmas are anything to go by, it’s definitely something adults and children alike crave.
Until then, suspend your disbelief. You might still enjoy a raucous hour with the creatures from the deep, dark wood.