King’s Theatre, Edinburgh
The Birmingham Stage Company’s children’s shows are well-known throughout the UK (as well as further afield), and this touring adaptation of David Walliams’ best-seller lets us see why they are so popular. This is theatre with its target audience firmly in its sights, every detail carefully judged to ensure it hits its mark.
It tells the tale of Ben (Ashley Cousins), whose ballroom-obsessed parents (played tonight by Benedict Martin and understudy Louise Bailey) force him to spend every Friday night with his boring Granny (Gilly Tompkins). But, as Ben soon discovers, there’s more to Granny than cabbage soup: her secret alter-ego is an infamous jewel thief – and anything but dull. It’s a charming story with a simple message: don’t underestimate people just because they’re old. “I wasn’t born a little old lady,” as Granny says to Ben.
The production is big and bold, the supporting characters a series of Roald Dahl-style grotesques. The children in the audience love these comic exaggerations: Mr Parker, the nosy neighbour (Benedict Martin again), seems a particular favourite, eliciting squeals of delighted laughter with his heightened mannerisms.
There are some stand-out moments and ideas. The mobility scooter is used to good comic effect, and the unflinching approach to mortality is very refreshing in a production of this ilk. The characters are all well-drawn and clearly delineated throughout. I love the way that sound effects are employed, not just in the inevitable (and very funny) fart jokes, but also to facilitate our acceptance that there is, for example, a car on stage. It’s a neat, efficient means of conveying ideas, and the performers physicalise it well.
In fact, if there’s a criticism, it’s that there could be more of this. The set seems overly complex, with too many distracting scene changes that often seem unnecessary. A simpler, more pared-down approach would mean less stage traffic and less ‘busy-ness’ (the constant setting up/taking down of the kitchen table and chairs seems particularly pointless), and would make the story’s through-line clearer and more direct.
All in all, though, this is a lot of fun, and a huge success with its intended audience. The children near us were shiny-eyed and excited as they left the theatre, and that’s surely what this is all about.