George’s Marvellous Medicine
by Roald Dahl, newly adapted for the stage by David Wood
The Birmingham Stage Company
Poole Lighthouse, 24 July 2010
I’ve seen a lot of children’s theatre, not even counting the two pantomimes or sometimes three that I see each year. I’ve worked with enough actors to have heard the dismal tales of touring theatre companies, playing to kids in musty old converted cinemas, or school halls. A career sweltering in a sweat-stained lion or dragon suit only appeals to those with an optismistic concept of future glories. It’s only one step removed from doing the Disneyland parade, probably worse paid, though not as hot. You probably have to pass more auditions to dance through the Magic Kingdom as Snow White, Captain Hook, Princess Jasmine or Jafar. On the other hand I’ve experienced the pure joy of a toddler touching Snow White’s hand next to me, or being allowed to sit on Aerial’s lap for a photo, and even the most hardened thespian heart must get returns from those smiles and waves. Add in the theme park kids shows at Disney or Universal theme parks with their polished effects and highly professional productions, or their poorer cousins at UK Legoland, or the teenagers woodenly ploughing through an appallingly written “play” at some of the tawdrier wannabe theme parks. I’m thinking Alice’s Adventures just outside Bournemouth here.
So a 10.30 performance on a summer Saturday is not a new experience, but one I rarely approach with much hope of being entertained myself. I’m there to accompany (and pay). They’re usually in the studio rather than the main theatre, and the forced interaction is often painful to watch, much as I feel impelled to help by shouting Hurray or Boo. This was different. It was in the main theatre.
First Poole Lighthouse had the ingredients of the magic medicine in a lobby display and a black tent you could enter by torchlight. The set was excellent with animal noises being played through speakers before the start. The play was performed by a basic cast of four, plus a stage manager as giant chicken and a girl as not-quite-so-large chicken and shrunken grandma. Dad was replaced before they got to Poole by Morgan Philpott, while George had been replaced on the day by the ASM / giant chicken, Jason O’Brien. That’s often mild cause for discontent. Not here. The cast were all brilliant, giving it their all on a Saturday morning, and each seemed perfect for the part. Erika Poole was a hilarious grandma, Alison Fitzjohn a loveable mum.
The adaptation is highly theatrical with lots of brilliant effects and humour, and the audience interaction really worked on calling out the missing ingredients of the medicine and helping with the spell, without any of the frantic shouted exhortations of Buttons or Wishy-Washy we expect from pantomime, and no “Yes, you did!” / “No, you didn’t!” either. Just enough interaction, pulled out naturally and easily. The effects are excellent, the script flows effortlessly. Our companion was transfixed as grandma grew. It worked better than any pantomime I’ve seen in years.
One caveat, in a theatre that size, do the actors really need head mics? They certainly shouldn’t, although there are a lot of sound effects and music to be heard over. There’s no singing, so it’s hard to see the excuse. However, the sound was mixed very well indeed, so they sounded reasonably close to natural, unlike Poole pantomimes recently where the head mics are so loud that they remove any sense that the sound is coming from the actor.
Overall? I think it’s the best children’s production I’ve seen in many years. The length is just right. 45 or 50 minutes for Act One, a bit less for Act Two. It has the intimacy of real actors working with a real audience so lacking in those glossy polished “Six times a day” 30 minute Disney shows. The effects are not far off either, even on a much smaller scale. The little flash of light from George’s fingers at the end was more impressive than the explosions of flame or cascades of water beloved of Disney.