A mouse took a stroll through the deep, dark wood… and came out on top.
There is nothing more delightfully inspiring than a little hero taking on the big scary world and overcoming challenge. Since its first publishment in 1999, Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s award-winning picture book ‘The Gruffalo’ has become a worldwide sensation for both children and their parents alike. As a modern classic, there was never any doubt that both mouse and monster would be recreated for the screen and the stage now that we live in an era where anything can be reanimated through performance and storytelling.
After sell-out seasons across the world (including London’s West End and Broadway), The Gruffalo makes his way back onto Australian terrain not long after his previous tour down-under. Presented by CDP Theatre Producers in the ornate and comfortably-sized Athenaeum Theatre, the intimacy of the space immediately helps the large audience feel involved and absorbed; and for a pantomime, that involvement in necessary! With children of all ages finding moments to chuckle royally and moments to scream hysterically, the room is alive with the sound of young light and joy as we join Mouse on a daring adventure through the deep, dark wood in a magical musical adaptation of the original best-seller.
For our adventure, the world of the forest is built onstage: two towering trees standing on either side (one with a doorway carved into its wood for dramatic entrances), a log pile to lie upon, a rotating smaller tree with a high-branch alcove standing in the centre, two bushy flats in front of a backdrop of trees and leaves, and a mobile platform with an arched tree and rock step that swung all over the stage to help with certain transitions. With such an intricately and enormously designed landscape, this deep, dark wood is accomplished without difficulty.
As the style is so much enveloped in physical theatre and slapstick comedy, props aren’t too necessary as the performers can “create” objects with their body through a trained approach to mime. However, this production effectively uses a minimal amount for various reasons, including Mouse’s longed-for hazelnut as motive for her adventure, the “Nut Map” to direct her on her journey, and the rattlesnake’s hilariously-endowed maracas to emphasise that he is, indeed, a rattlesnake. One memorable prop was the sprout of four leaves on the tree that, when detached from the set and flipped, turned into a glorious pink butterfly that would flutter around Mouse to reiterate the beauty in her world.
The Tall Stories original score is composed of all the nuances of pantomime, with simple lyrics and a light pop/rock quality with static chordal progressions to keep the messages clear and make sure the children don’t get lost amongst the complexities of a more wordy or rhythmic piece. With a song for each encounter that was well performed by each actor onstage, nothing was lost and the story progressed without halt, with the vocal capacities of the performers wowing any singer on what it means to maintain technique after a segments of bouncing off the walls – literally.
The soundscape was a highlight in that it was predominantly created by the performers and their voices, with incredible detail to heightened sounds to accentuate everything from the head movements to the fart jokes, extracting laughs from the youthful audience while maintaining an awesome focus. Every now and again one of these noises was further warped through some form of effect, like amplification or reverb, to boom an anxiety into the children in the room so that they knew the Gruffalo was on his way, slowly building the anticipation in a subtle crescendo.
With a general onstage wash, the stage was always awake and alive with energy. Behind the backdrop was a light screen that adjusted colour with the rest of the lighting to highlight certain mood or time changes, turning darker when reaching the darkest part of the deep wood, blue as the night cycled in and amber again when day came to chase the moon away. A moment of fear is left at the end of the show when, as all the lights go out and the while theatre becomes a void, the screen shines a vibrant crimson; and with the cutting of the backdrop in front of it, the audience is left with what seems to be a glaring pair of evil eyes for a fleeting moment before they, too, fade.
The costumes were brilliantly designed in a way that was both efficient and effective. With Mouse in her beige jungle explorer’s gear and tail hanging about, her adventurous side was already painted on her body. The initial narrator dressed in a casual dressware before donning the huge mass of Gruffalo skin for the final endeavour of the show, while the secondary narrator switched characters – from cunning Fox to eccentric Owl to flamboyant Snake – at a constant rate, each change accommodated by an intricate costume that highlighted all the individual features of the animal in a humanoid way.
And the performers. Directed with unfathomable precision and an almost ironic delicacy in exaggeration, we have a trio – Shannen Sarstedt as the self-assuring and self-determined Mouse, Kyle Kaczmarczyk as the charming Narrator #1 and the bellowing Gruffalo, and Hayden Baum as the just-as-charming Narrator #2 and the myriad of Predators – so in sync to have produced most of the elements onstage without falter, all the while supporting each other to the idea that they probably could have carried the show without any of the additional elements. Providing most of their own soundboard and imagery, their professional grasp on physical comedy and slapstick with nuances of mime help deliver all the tropes of proficient pantomime is crisp, clean and charismatic; this allowed the more colloquial adult jokes slip under the surface for only the adult ears to pick up whereas the on-the-surface carry-along keeps the stage vivid with movement and caricature. There is not a moment of hesitation or a slip-up to be had; however, there are moments when the pace of delivery of lines is too rushed and sentences spiralled momentarily. All in all, the actors’ use of poise and posture on top of their vocal prowess to define characters was unparalleled.
This production is one the whole family can devour, and after following our little mousey friend on her thrilling tale of woe and wonder, any child will be screaming with confidence that they, too, can make something of themselves in their own deep, dark woods.