Has it started? What’s going on? The curtain is up, as are the house lights, and four people appear to be setting up camp on the stage. Is it the Occupy movement? Occupy children’s theatre? They’re wandering around the audience now, looking for… sweets? Barely audible above the roar of the full house. It’s chaotic and disengaging, and several hundred children are still asking for drinks and Haribo. And then, zhoom! What’s that? The lights go down, and the cast look up at the sky above us. Who… is… that?
It’s the Witch! Doing a rather passable impression of Miranda Hart doing a wonderful impersonation of a Witch! And she’s perfect. She’s the book in pop-up form. And she has a Cat, and a song to sing which bounces along on beats borrowed from the Sesame Street theme tune. And what’s that noise? It’s the absence of xylophone and ear-splitting synth! It’s… music from a proper band! A guitar band! Playing the kind of music grown ups might actually want to listen to! Good quality music that appeals to ears of all ages (and the directors know it. Hence the puns, knowingly spun out of a little Queen lyric here and a little Chubby Checker line there.)
Actual book rhymes and quotable lines form the bones upon which to hang just under an hour’s riffing and swooping (it’s a slightly erratically behaving broom, you know) by the Witch, Cat, Dog, Bird and Frog. And riff they do, those chatty creatures causing a squash and a squeeze on that little besom broom. Especially Dog and Frog, who, at one point, appear to swap voices, spectacularly saved by a brilliant ‘frog in the throat’ ad lib from their mutual puppeteer. It’s testament to the tightness of the cast that they can pull off a stumble which actually benefits the script.
It’s a wordy production, and, unusually for a children’s production, not too big on audience participation. Perhaps a little too old for the under fours, who I had always assumed were the book’s target audience. Which makes it perfect for four to seven year-olds, who click with the characters like the old friends they are.
This is how to do a much-loved book – remembering the aspects that make it so cherished. Making the characters look and feel just like they do in your head. Not trying to create something too new.
Using puppets for all the animals apart from Cat is a master stroke, allowing them to have a cartoonish physicality faithful to the book while adding some aspects they may not have had at every bedtime reading (Jive-talking Cajun Frog, anyone? He’s hilarious. I’d chase him down to see what a kiss might do to him. And Dragon! Well, prynhawn da!).
It’s intelligent, well-paced, and, as you would hope, zips along with an iggity ziggity zaggity zoom, until the big reveal of the truly magnificent broom. At the end of a truly magnificent show.
Room On The Broom is at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford until Sunday 23 September, after which it goes to the Oxford Playhouse and The Depot, North Finchley.
There is a drop-in workshop for ages 3+ and their adults in the Upper Foyer of the theatre at 11.45am-12.45pm before the show on 23 September. Make your own witch’s hat and do some drama!
Photo: Helen Warner