The Gruffalo’s Child by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Scheffler, adapted for stage by Tall Stories Theatre Company (UK). Christine Dunstan Productions at Canberra Theatre July 20-23, 2011.
Reviewed by Frank McKone
The costumes by Matthew Aberline for the Mouse (Crystal Hegedis), the Gruffalo’s Child (Chandel Brandimarti), the Gruffalo, the Snake, the Owl and the Fox (Stephen Anderson) in this musical version of The Gruffalo’s Child say a great deal to me about the business of adapting The Gruffalo and The Gruffalo’s Child for the stage. What is gained and what is lost?
I began my quest because my resident Gruffalo expert, who will soon turn six, was clearly disappointed that the Mouse’s nut ‘as big as a boulder’ did not appear on stage. Why not? I thought to myself.
Every quest entails a series of adventures. First, the energy, professional skills and discipline of the performers was exciting, as a good adventure should be. Then those costumes – so much more colourful, and just plain interesting than the pictures in the books. More about this later. The tulgey wood landscape was an adventure in itself, again with twisted emotional effects that were never in the books’ very ordinary pine forests. And the sound track was as whimsical and fun as the books, though the children in the audience, of course, would not have recognised the musical references behind the songs.
Probably most of the children wouldn’t have noticed the missing nut-boulder, since they were obviously thoroughly engaged by the show. When I wondered why my little expert had, I took my quest onto YouTube and found a home-made video of a reading of The Gruffalo’s Child at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=27TO94H3Fr8.
Then I realised how the full moon shadow of the Mouse with her nut as big as a boulder on her shoulder made her appear to the Gruffalo’s Child as such a huge monster – even huger than her Gruffalo father – that it was no wonder that the little Gruff forgot her stick and skidded home faster than the Snake, the Owl and the Fox had scarpered from the fearful Gruffalo that they had never even seen.
Though this bit of the book was lost, it was Aberline’s costume for the Fox that highlighted the gains. Each of the characters on stage were fully developed – within a pantomime tradition – which for me made the stage production greater than the sum of its book bits. The Fox as the ultimate salesman, and the style of the music and song lyrics, suddenly struck home. Here was Macheath from The Threepenny Opera, though fortunately short of the full Mack the Knife. Even the music reminded me of Kurt Weill and the clipped phrasing of Bertolt Brecht.
So my quest completed successfully, I could praise both the Tall Stories Theatre Company for the script and the Dunstan team for its interpretation – though in the Australian context I have some doubts about educating our children with the European concerns about fear of the ‘deep dark wood’. Our bush, admittedly, has snakes worth fearing, but no imaginary gruffalos – just wombats, koalas, wallabies, and, unfortunately, plagues of mice and foxes which are feral But it was nice to see on stage what a good father the Gruffalo was, and how bravely Little Gruff went out to find her truth.