Adults sometimes complain that theatre for children is dominated by literary adaptation. In recent years we’ve had The Railway Children at Waterloo Station, Swallows and Amazons at the Bristol Old Vic, and the RSC’s musical version of Matilda, currently playing at the Cambridge Theatre, London. But all these were hits, proving that, with the help of a sensitive writer and an inspired director, the best books can come to life in a new way on stage.
Angus Jackson’s production of Michelle Magorian’s second world war novel Goodnight Mister Tom is one such revelation. Young evacuee William Beech is sent to deepest Dorset to lodge with Tom Oakley, a reclusive widower, arriving with only a Bible and a belt. It emerges he has been abused by his mentally unstable mother, a devout Christian who believes in eternal damnation and not much else. Gruff Mr Oakley seems to the villagers an unlikely candidate: he has little experience in “this here mothering thing”, his beloved wife having died in childbirth some 40 years before, along with their baby. But, gradually, William and Tom (or Mister Tom to the boy) blossom, as William learns to read, write and paint and Mister Tom re-learns to love. It’s a big task for a young actor, but in the performance I saw Ewan Harris (one of three who alternate) was assured opposite Oliver Ford Davies as Mister Tom, a deeply felt portrayal.
Sentimentality is kept at bay by the humour in this portrait of village life, complete with its chain-smoking doctor and amateur dramatics society – whose star, the spirited Zach (William Price), bicycles and tap dances his way through the play to the audience’s delight. First seen at the Chichester Festival Theatre last year, the production has plenty to hold young audiences. Mister Tom’s dog Sammy comes to life with some wonderfully detailed puppetry, and the period is conjured in Vera Lynn songs, woollens and tweeds, and boys who say “wizard”. When London calls, interrupting William’s rural idyll, the entire floor lifts to reveal his old home: bare, dingy and concealing a dark secret.
David Wood is an experienced adapter of children’s books, having tackled The BFG, The Witches and Babe, The Sheep Pig, but the emotional gear-changes feel at times abrupt, not helped by the swift direction. But that is an adult’s complaint: a glance down my row revealed mostly young faces, each one rapt.
It’s hard playing to both children and grown-ups, for what excites one may bore the other – and too often children’s shows consider the parents only in occasional wink-wink asides. Not so with the RSC’s production of Russell Hoban’s 1968 classic The Mouse and His Child, newly adapted by Tamsin Oglesby. It begins at night in a toyshop, where the wind-up titular characters are new arrivals. No sooner than a roller-skating elephant has explained to the clueless pair that toys don’t stick around for long, the mice are bought, discarded and captured by a band of demi-monde vermin. Masterminding the kidnap is the mafia-style boss Manny Rat (the wonderfully creepy Michael Hodgson), who collects clockwork parts and likes nothing more than to dismantle wind-up toys . . .
So the mice begin their adventure, pursuing a double-pronged dream of becoming “self-winding” and finding a home. They meet some memorable characters along the way, including a Californian new-age hippy frog, and a pair of thespian crows and a poet parrot whose studied bird mannerisms are enough to reduce the most po-faced of adults to giggles. Indeed, movement director Siân Williams has done wonders, giving each creature its signature lollop or strut.
The obvious modern comparison is with Toy Story – both in terms of the plot and Oglesby’s script, which brims with clever jokes and astute observation. But The Mouse and His Child delights in its theatricality – building excitement around that sense of a shared live experience – and the audience responds with obvious glee. There are explosions, catchy dance numbers and jazz from a live band. Characters descend from on high and appear through holes in the floor. Though the mice’s journey is essentially a sequence of encounters, slick direction and superb acting preserve suspense. “No!” let out a small voice from the balcony at a particularly tense moment on press night. I knew how he felt. Many shows claim to be for all ages: this one really is.
The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming at London’s Roundhouse is a quirky alternative for Christmas – but very much aimed at younger children; those older than 10 might feel patronised. It’s an adaptation of a Lemony Snicket book about a lonely latke (the fried potato pancake eaten at Hanukah) trying to find its place at Christmas. It’s a pertinent theme to multicultural London, and thankfully one that is not overplayed.
Four of the five-strong cast take on multiple roles while the latke (the exuberant Michael Lambourne) makes his way through a snowy village in search of a family who know what he is. “I am not a hash brown – and I’ll have absolutely nothing to do with ham!” he screams at the talking Christmas lights who rather fancy a fry-up. The plot is similarly sequential to The Mouse and His Child but without the same sophistication – anything longer than 50 minutes would be too much. As it is, this is a fun, energetic production with plenty of visual gags and songs that, at the performance I attended, had the schoolchildren dancing in their seats.
Goodnight Mr Tom, Phoenix Theatre, London, until January 26 then touring, www.goodnightmistertom.co.uk
The Mouse and His Child, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, until January 12, www.rsc.org.uk
The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming, Roundhouse, London, until December 30, www.roundhouse.org.uk