Julia Donaldson and Axel Sheffler’s picture book about a bold and cunning mouse outwitting its would-be predators and conquering its fear of the deep dark wood, with a little help from a fearsome but flea-brained monster, has charmed a generation of youngsters.
It’s also spawned a wildly successful BBC adaptation, countless toys and board games, and numerous attractions, including Twycross Zoo’s recently opened Gruffalo Discovery Land.
But stretching this study in succinct storytelling into a play commanding the attention of an infinitely distractable three-year-old for a whole hour seemed a stretch too far even for such a global phenomenon.
That’s the task Tall Stories took on and – after the usual last-minute nappy changes, trips to the loo, bargaining over sweets and soft drinks, and hunt for spare booster cushions, which are all part of the fun of a trip to the theatre with your toddler – it succeeded admirably.
Children’s shows shouldn’t be rated on a simple five-star scale. The true test of your little one’s enjoyment is the squirm factor – put simply, the less wriggling, the more captivated they are by what’s in front of them.
The Gruffalo took a while to get going, and there was a little bottom adjustment in the early stages, but once it hit its stride, this joyful 60 minutes of slapstick, songs and general silliness had my son at least captivated – and glued to the spot – by what is a refreshingly new take on a well-worn tale.
All Donaldson’s words are there – and youngsters are encouraged to shout along to their favourite lines – but it’s jazzed up with some catchy original songs, and performed with great energy and timing by the impressive cast of three: Aimee Louise Bevan, as the mouse; Aaron Dart, as the narrator and Gruffalo; and Alastair Chisholm, as the fox, the owl and the snake.
There’s more than an air of panto to proceedings, with plenty of audience participation, and there’s even an attempt to squeeze in a bit of education, like in the clever sequence where Owl illuminates us about his flightless feathered friends.
This imaginative adaptation’s probably best suited for children aged three to five but there’s enough to entertain older siblings, even if they’re too cool to admit it.
While it stays true to the heart of the story, it doesn’t stick too slavishly to the book or the TV adaptation stylistically, nor is it too scary for little ones with overactive imaginations.
Perhaps the highest praise is how few murmurings of discontent there were from such a notoriously tetchy and hard-to-please audience, and how overwhelmingly those were drowned out by them all roaring along with relish when asked to help out Mouse.
I should leave the final word to my three-and-a-half-year-old son, who summed it up much better than I ever could, saying: “It’s brill, which means brilliant.”
The Gruffalo is at the Lyceum Theatre until Friday, May 20. Tickets for this and other children’s shows can be booked at the box office in person, over the phone on 0114 249 6000, or online at sheffieldtheatres.co.uk.
For more about Tall Stories, visit www.tallstories.org.uk.