The Gruffalo, Criterion Theatre, London
Thursday 28 July 2005
Whether The Gruffalo has been around long enough to count as a classic is, perhaps, open to question; but few children under the age of 10, and few adults who have contact with children, will be in any doubt: it has achieved a similar status to The Very Hungry Caterpillar. For the uninitiated: The Gruffalo is a picture book by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, first published in 1999, which tells the story of a clever mouse who, while travelling through the woods in search of nuts, is challenged by a variety of predators - fox, snake, owl. In each case, the mouse scares off the threat by explaining that it is meeting a gruffalo, a creature whose features include terrible tusks and terrible claws, and terrible teeth in its terrible claws. Having tittered at the stupidity of the predators for not realising that the gruffalo is imaginary, the mouse is startled to run into a real one.
The book's attractions are not hard to enumerate: a story with a strong plot and swift pacing; Donaldson's strongly rhymed verse, with a neat and memorable structure of repetition; and Scheffler's beautiful illustrations - richly detailed, witty and full of pathos.
Tall Stories' approach to staging it is rational and often ingenious. Scheffler's characterisation of the predators, for example, would be almost impossible to reproduce; but Thomas Warwick gives each of them a distinct set of characteristics - the Fox is a tweedy, slightly spivvy country gent, the Owl is caught in an RAF fantasy, and the Snake is a lithe Mexican dancer. Alice Parsloe's mouse relies on bunched hair and brown corduroys to suggest mousiness; only Felix Hayes' Gruffalo is approximately literal, in a padded suit.
The show has many other virtues: hummable songs, some enjoyable moments of audience participation. But almost nothing survives in the show of what made the book attractive. The central problem is that a book that takes five minutes to read needs some padding to make it an acceptable length for a paying audience: the storyline survives, but Donaldson's virtues of pace and structure are lost, her verse buried beneath additional material.
I took a five-year-old and an eight-year-old (just outside the recommended age-range): both were distinctly moderate in their praise, and emphatic that it wasn't a patch on the book. I suspect that it works better for very young children, and perhaps for children who don't know the book; but those are in short supply.
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