Listen to this article
Plants are behaving badly on several London stages this Christmas. While a man-eating flower dominates proceedings in Little Shop of Horrors at the Menier Chocolate Factory, there is more horticultural horror at Greenwich, where, in Sleeping Beauty, Belladonna Bindweed winds her tendrils around the hopes and plans of King Meadowsweet.
Indeed, the gardening theme runs right through Andew Pollard’s script: the kingdom is Gardenia; the cheeky chappy is Billy Bogbean; the good fairy is Fairy Flax. Prince Sylvanus, who comes to the rescue, lists “gardening and walking” as his hobbies, and he manages to rescue Princess Rose from behind her briar hedge because he is handy with a pair of secateurs. So the story’s preoccupation with taming nature and keeping the wilderness at bay comes across. Such interpretations are there if you choose to see them, but they don’t stand in the way of a sprightly telling of the tale.
Directed by Phil Willmott, this is a sunny staging with plenty of narrative drive. It cracks along through the familiar story, leaving time for comic business, but doesn’t stretch the plot too thin. There is a nice, bumbling king (Paul Critoph) and Pollard makes a pleasingly eccentric dame, at ease with his material and the audience.
Juliet Mary McGill is adorable and feisty as Rose. And Willmott cannily works against making the love story sickly sweet by sending up clichéd effects: as Rose and Sylvanus serenade one another with “Love is in the Air”, the Good Fairy sprints around the stage planting teddy bears, roses and bubbles to create the perfect romantic setting.
Not everything works so well. The fights are feeble, there are ideas that are set up but not followed through, and, while it is good to see the traditional cookery scene, it needs to be much messier. But, for the most part, this is a likeable show.
There is more on the pros and cons of freedom and security in That Pesky Rat at Soho Theatre. This little show for 3- to 8-year-olds is adapted, by Jonathan Lloyd, from Lauren Child’s book of the same name. Pesky Rat lives in a dustbin on Grubby Alley, free to come and go as he chooses. But he dreams of being a pet – of belonging to someone, and, most poignantly, of having a name.
He takes us on a tour of his friends’ homes, gazing wistfully at their lives. But, as his friends point out, no owner is perfect: Pierre the chinchilla eats luxury chocolates, but his mistress insists on blow-drying his fur until he resembles a pom-pom; Oscar the cat has gadgets galore, but needs them because his master is never home; Andrew the terrier does jigsaws with his kindly owner, but has to endure the ignominy of wearing a tartan coat and hat when he goes out for walks.
The challenge, of course, is to find a stage equivalent of Child’s unique, spiky drawing style. Lloyd and his team do a pretty good job, using personable hand-puppets from Talk to the Hand puppeteers and jazzy music from Kenny Mellman. Pesky Rat (worked by Celia Meiras) is a most appealing character: with his long, brown nose and beady eyes, he manages to look chipper and forlorn by turns.
The show suffers the drawback of many book adaptations, however: the narrative is too linear, too flat and too episodic. As drama, then, it is bound to be pretty thin. Still, what it does, it does well. And parents will be heartened, at this time of year, by a show that points up the folly of lusting after what your friends have.
‘Sleeping Beauty’, Greenwich Theatre, London, Tel +44 20 8858 7755, ‘That Pesky Rat’, Soho Theatre, London, Tel +44 870 429 6883,