Review: The Legend of Moby Dick Whittington (online review)

Since 2014, comedy trio The Sleeping Trees have shown us they know how to put on a great family panto. This year, they’ve gone one further and proved they don’t even need a stage. The Legend of Moby Dick Whittington is a witty, fast-paced musical adventure that’s full of surprises and will have audiences of all ages joining in from (and possibly on, behind or under) their sofas.

Dick Whittington’s celebrating his first Christmas as London’s Mayor when the unthinkable happens: a huge white whale swims up the Thames and swallows Santa Claus. Now Dick and his cat must enlist the help of marine biologist Dr Jessica Ahab (and Pinocchio, because – well, why not) and take to the high seas to find Moby Dick and save Christmas. But with a vengeful King Rat hot on their tail, can they bring Santa home safely?

Photo credit: Shaun Reynolds

This year, like everyone, The Sleeping Trees have had to adapt to a new set of circumstances, and they’ve risen to the challenge in their own inimitable style. Audiences are stuck at home, so James Dunnell-Smith, Joshua George Smith and John Woodburn have produced a Christmas living room adventure we can all participate in, with the help of just a few everyday household objects. And like all good comedy, though it’s aimed primarily at younger audience members – who will no doubt love the opportunity to build a ship in the middle of their living room – the 50-minute show has more than enough going on to keep the grown-ups entertained too (which is probably just as well in light of the aforementioned ship building).

Under Kerry Frampton’s slick and ingenious direction, no corner of the house goes unused on this madcap adventure across the ocean. Even knowing that the action’s taking place on screen instead of stage, it’s hard not to be impressed by the seemingly endless number of characters three performers can play at the same time. Said performers, meanwhile, juggle their various roles, costumes, accents and props with ease, and are clearly having just as much fun as the audience along the way.

Photo credit: Shaun Reynolds

The story – co-written with Ben Hales – is quite bonkers, but anyone familiar with The Sleeping Trees’ previous offerings (which include Cinderella and the Beanstalk and Scrooge and the Seven Dwarves) would be disappointed if it wasn’t. For parents looking for a way to entertain the kids this Christmas, look no further than this fantastic feel-good family show, which reminds even the Scroogiest of Scrooges that there’s adventure to be found anywhere if we just put our minds to it. Even if we’re stuck at home with nothing but some kitchen utensils, a few loo rolls and a bed sheet to work with.

The Legend of Moby Dick Whittington is online until 5th January.

Review: Rumpelstiltskin at Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre

Think you know the story of Rumpelstiltskin? Think again. This Christmas, the classic fairy tale gets a distinctly bizarre new look courtesy of Windmill Theatre Company’s Rosemary Myers and Julianne O’Brien. And while there’s a lot to enjoy – plenty of humour, a rocking soundtrack and a strong message, not to mention it looks amazing – the show feels at times like it’s trying too hard to be different, and it loses something in the process.

Photo credit: The Other Richard

In this adaptation, Rumpelstiltskin (Paul Capsis) is a reclusive but brilliant fashion designer, who’s so ugly his staff – a Rat (Alirio Zavarce) and a Crow (Elena Carapetis) – have had to hire a model (Mitchell Butel) to play him in public. When Harriet (Sheridan Harbridge) arrives in the city looking for a job and determined to prove her childhood bullies wrong, Rumpel helps her out – for a price. But then she wants more, and more… and with nothing left to offer, she promises to give up her most precious future possession if she can live happily ever after with the man she thinks is Rumpelstiltskin, despite the fact that means stealing him from her best friend Tootie (Michaela Burger). Soon Harriet has everything she ever wanted – until she gives birth to her first child, and the real Rumpel returns to call in the debt…

There are recognisable elements of the original plot, and the moral of the story (be careful what you wish for) is still there, but otherwise the show veers a little too far from both the source material and format, and as a result it ends up feeling at times unnecessarily complicated, particularly in Act 1. Australian cabaret star Paul Capsis makes an enjoyably eccentric Rumpelstiltskin but he’s not at all villainous, and if anything is actually quite likeable. In contrast, it’s hard to feel much sympathy for selfish, greedy Harriet when her baby’s stolen, given everything she’s done to get to where she is; unlike in the original, she’s almost entirely responsible for her own misery. All this makes it difficult to know who exactly we’re meant to be rooting for throughout the story, and the show’s abrupt, sugar-coated finale – though brilliantly performed by the undisputed star of Act 2, Ezra Juanta – feels both unlikely and a bit unsatisfying for an audience used to seeing a bad guy get their comeuppance.

Photo credit: The Other Richard

Problematic though the content of the show is, there’s no denying that from a design perspective, it’s a triumph. Together, Jonathan Oxlade’s set and Chris Edser’s animations make for some truly magical and slightly mind-bending effects, and everything on stage is so colourful and over the top that it feels like we’ve stepped right into the middle of a cartoon. (The 1960s look does seem a bit out of step with the show’s very modern dialogue and messaging – hashtags, Instagram and the like – but that seems a small price to pay for a production that looks as good as this.)

Rumpelstiltskin only partially succeeds in its ambition to reinvent a classic fairy tale for the 21st century, but though it’s let down by a lack of clarity in the writing, it’s still undeniably good entertainment. A high-energy family show with strong performances and plenty of silliness to appeal to both kids and grown-ups, it makes for a flawed but fun festive outing.

Review: Cinderella: A Fairytale at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

If you enjoy a good festive fairytale but you’re not a fan of panto, Cinderella: A Fairytale, this year’s Christmas production at the Brockley Jack, offers an excellent alternative. Fairy godmothers and glass slippers are nowhere to be seen in this darkly humorous take on the well-known story – but despite a few grisly moments, there’s still a happy ending and more than enough fun and adventure to send the audience home full of glad tidings and cheer.

Photo credit: Tim Stubbs Hughes

Devised by Sally Cookson, Adam Peck and the original company back in 2011, this Cinderella borrows from the Brothers Grimm version, Aschenputtel, but with a few details tweaked. For starters independent, no-nonsense Ella (Molly Byrne) needs no rescuing; she’s more than able to take care of herself, first encountering the birdwatching prince (Charlie Bateman) in the woods after tricking her stepsiblings into doing her cleaning for her. Instead of stepsisters, this story has a stepsister (Aimee Louise Bevan) and a stepbrother (Joel Black), who may not be ugly but are definitely mean, though still portrayed in a more forgiving light than in most adaptations. The undisputed villain here is Ella’s awful stepmother (Bryan Pilkington), who’s more than prepared to mistreat her own children as well as Ella in order to get what she wants.

In a nod to the panto spirit, the show includes live musical numbers composed by Elliot Clay, and a little bit of harmless audience participation, led by Charlie Bateman as a prince whose social awkwardness actually makes him all the more charming. You won’t be called on to shout “oh no it isn’t” or “he’s behind you”, but it is tempting on more than one occasion to boo Bryan Pilkington’s wicked stepmother. The part of the baddie is very much played for laughs – and very successfully so – but that in no way detracts from the character’s viciousness, particularly in contrast to Pilkington’s other role as Ella’s kindly, mild-mannered father.

The Brockley Jack’s final show of the year is always a festive treat, and the latest offering from Kate Bannister and the team is no exception. While other productions of Cinderella may attempt a lavish Disney-style affair, this one uses the power of imagination to bring the story and its settings to life. The opening sequence charts Ella’s childhood years through some delightfully creative puppetry from Will Pinchin, and the all-important birds, who appear throughout the story as Ella’s friends and helpers, are portrayed using pages from books. Meanwhile Karl Swinyard’s deceptively simple set has a few magical surprises up its sleeve, and sound designer Phil Matejtschuk has rather too much fun with grisly sound effects; we may not see what happens when the meat cleaver comes out, but that doesn’t stop the audience flinching as one each time it finds its target.

Photo credit: Tim Stubbs Hughes

Meat cleavers (and vengeful birds) aside, Cinderella: A Fairytale is feel-good family fun, which discards the predictable cheesiness, chaos and risqué humour traditionally associated with festive shows, while retaining all the humour and entertainment value for audiences of any age. A charming, polished and hugely enjoyable Christmas production, this show is well worth venturing out in the cold to see. Oh yes it is…