Just So, Festival Theatre, Chichester

A child of our times
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The Independent Culture

When I was an infant there was no character in literature who tickled me more than the Elephant's Child, one of the heroes of Rudyard Kipling's enchanting Just So Stories. He's the animal whose insatiable curiosity causes him to go round getting spanked by all his relations for asking risky questions like: "What does the Crocodile have for dinner?" The funniest bit, in my view, was when the Elephant's Child, his nose caught in a tug-of-war with the Crocodile's jaws and his little legs slipping, confides in a nasal aside that: "This is too butch for be!" It's as though he suddenly turns to camera: a moment of adorably inadvertent camp. I also loved the way that he uses his accidentally-acquired new protruberance not for any altruistic purposes but to get his own back on his rude, aggressive relations, hurling them into hornets' nests and the like.

When I was an infant there was no character in literature who tickled me more than the Elephant's Child, one of the heroes of Rudyard Kipling's enchanting Just So Stories. He's the animal whose insatiable curiosity causes him to go round getting spanked by all his relations for asking risky questions like: "What does the Crocodile have for dinner?" The funniest bit, in my view, was when the Elephant's Child, his nose caught in a tug-of-war with the Crocodile's jaws and his little legs slipping, confides in a nasal aside that: "This is too butch for be!" It's as though he suddenly turns to camera: a moment of adorably inadvertent camp. I also loved the way that he uses his accidentally-acquired new protruberance not for any altruistic purposes but to get his own back on his rude, aggressive relations, hurling them into hornets' nests and the like.

So it's a bit of a surprise to meet up with my childhood hero again, soppily reincarnated as a socially responsible seeker of justice in this witty but ultimately wearisome musical version of the Just So Stories, from the team of George Stiles (score) and Anthony Drewe (book and lyrics).

The show begins promisingly. The Eldest Magician (Junix Inocian) summons forth the creatures of the animal kingdom, who emerge through a row of doors on Peter McKintosh's set, identically clad in white vests and long johns. There's the real sense of a blank canvas tingling with possibility, though even here, when the magician sings that they should, "Just make a choice/ And stand out from the crowd", you sense that Kipling's mischievousness is going to be overlaid with the standard Broadway ethic of assertive individualism.

Full of twee questions about the natural world ("Has each black widow spider/ Ever been a bride?"), Richard Dempsey's lanky, sweet-faced Elephant's Child peels off from his glumly plodding, trench-coated elders and links the episodes through his quest to find and defeat the bulky, bolshie crab Pau Amma. This loner, represented here by a bank of palpitating dustbin lids and two giant pairs of scissors, selfishly floods the land twice a day when it goes out to sea for its dinner. En route to this rendezvous, the musical pastiches of everything from Sondheim to ska are never less than adroit; the lyrics are always natty and we meet some engaging types, including Nicolas Colicos's massive Billy Bunter of a Rhino, who's bursting through his grey school uniform and horned with an ice cream cone, and the predatory wide-boy Leopard and Jaguar who want to take the female Giraffe and Zebra (up-for-it Essex clubbers) out to eat.

But I found the atmosphere trapped in an adulterated showbiz-shaped view of the world, and I can't help feeling that this will short change the children in the family audiences at whom the piece is aimed. The wonder of the stories keeps being subordinated to the clichéd "personal growth" values of your average musical. It's par for the course that the Kolokolo Bird (a nicely disgruntled, Northern Julie Atherton) is grounded by feelings of inadequacy ("Am I just not fit to fly?"), before daring to take the leap in order to save the Elephant's Child from the Croc.

As for the trunk, well there's a symbol of "growth" as plain as the nose of your face. Not "just so", alas, merely so-so.

To 25 September (01243 781312)

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