Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s beautiful picture book The Gruffalo has delighted children since it was first published in 1999, selling over 13 million copies worldwide. As an admirer of the book, the opportunity to see the adaptation as a play, now celebrating its fifteenth year, surrounded by children who had also clearly read and enjoyed the book intrigued me – what was it about this seemingly simple tale of a monster in the woods that captivated children so much?
Shaftesbury’s production did not disappoint. The performances by the cast were engaging, particularly the uber-cute Ellie Bell as Mouse, and Charlie Guest’s hilariously flamboyant Snake had me in stitches, even as an adult. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Gruffalo itself: would the actor be in costume? Would that costume be in the guise of the now completely iconic orange-eyed, black-tongued, Axel Scheffler-style illustration? No. Steve McCourt’s Gruffalo was in a fantastically designed costume made from ragged fur and purple spikes, but his face was his own (minus the ‘poisonous wart at the end of his nose’!). When the Gruffalo came out the children were delighted, particularly as he bumbled about through the audience. I thought his aura was perfectly hilarious – just the right combination of ominously large yet lumbering and dopey, as I had imagined from the book.
The set design and costumes were also equally well orchestrated, and had lovely nuanced nods to Scheffler’s illustrations, such as the strangely curving trees and piles of logs at the sides. I particularly liked the use of a colourful butterfly ‘fluttering’ around Mouse on one of the actor’s hands, to create space and allude to the naturalism of the books; some of the children were captivated by this too.
I could feel that the actors’ energy really translated well with the children. The songs were brilliantly catchy, and the classic ‘join in’ moments worked well with children that knew the story as well as those that didn’t, particularly when the children were asked to “ROOAARRR” like the Gruffalo! As with all performances with children, there were a few moments where the children’s concentration lagged, but I could tell that these breaks were necessary for the actors to change or move behind set. Amazingly, Ellie Bell was on stage for the entire show. She must have been exhausted!
I would definitely recommend The Gruffalo to any friend of mine with children, whether they have read the book or not. The story is a fun, uplifting tale of small but clever versus big, the production is full of fun and engaging songs, and if your little ones are really very little, even the gorgeous sets, colours, movements and sounds will make for a lovely afternoon of family-friendly theatre.