Review: The Gruffalo delights its discerning audience of little ones in Northampton

The hard-working cast of The Gruffalo
The hard-working cast of The Gruffalo

Anna Brosnan reviews The Gruffalo at the Royal & Derngate, Northampton

Hordes of audience members screaming out to characters on stage to tell them a 'baddie' is behind them is usually the territory of pantomime.

But within Tall Stories' production of The Gruffalo, which came to the Royal stage in Northampton this week, there was plenty of opportunity for young fans to yell, shout and generally get involved with the action.

The show is aimed at children aged three and above, the usual fan base for the prolific writings of the talented author Julia Donaldson and illustrator Axel Scheffler.

The Gruffalo is arguably one of Donaldson's most successful and famous characters, so the pressure was on for the three-strong cast to deliver this tale to a very young but discerning audience.

I visited the Tuesday afternoon show, accompanied by my friend and two five-year-old children. There was some confusion from our young companions when the show started as there was what seemed to be a lengthy focus on the action taking part in a 'deep, dark wood', when I think the children were waiting for more of the well-known rhyming lines to help them link the action on stage to what they know and love in the book.

Having said that, I could sense that the hard work of the actors on stage was paying off as the children got to grips with the fact the show is its own beast, going further than the basic rhyme and adding in extra action, dances and songs.

When I mention the hard work of the actors, this is no exaggeration. Rebecca Newman - dressed in trousers, waistcoat and a tiny 'mouse ears' Alice band - plays Mouse, Elliot Rodriguez is always present on stage with Mouse as a supplementary actor and dancer who finally takes on the fearsome role of The Gruffalo and Ashley Sean-Cook plays all of the other animal characters.

Dressed mostly in what looked to be a series of very warm animal costumes, Ashley did a fantastic job in delivering the humour and action associated with each character, at a hectic pace. Even my daughter turned to me, raised her eyebrows and asked 'when did he have time to change?'.

In my view, Ashley's interpretation of the mouse's predators - owl, fox and snake - was a highlight of the show and I enjoyed the way in which each of these characters had been styled for the stage, presented in 'human' costumes but with animal elements (for example owl appears in a vintage pilot's outfit with feathery arms and large round red glasses). Dance sequences with the owl echoed Charleston moves.

There was also plenty of opportunity for young audience members to get involved in the action, at one point roaring loudly at Mouse on stage to help her chase away the fox.

My daughter's summary at the end of the show was a beaming smile and the words 'I loved that'. The Gruffalo, live on stage, is a lot of fun, some slapstick action and a great way in which to bring such a well-loved story to life.

* Visit www.tallstories.org.uk/the-gruffalo for details of future productions