Down the Rabbit Hole at Alice in Wonderland, Royal & Derngate, Northampton, December 2011

MY daughter and I don’t get as much time together since she started nursery, but we took an afternoon out last week to take in a show.

Your daughters might be of an age where you can go for a nice meal or a coffee beforehand, do a bit of shopping perhaps, then spend a civilised evening at the theatre.

For me and Bonnie, it was a packet of jelly tots and a Fruit Shoot in the car park at lunchtime, before being dragged down a make-believe burrow by a rabbit impersonating Frank Spencer and a grown woman dressed as a little girl.

This was Down the Rabbit Hole (DTRH, to save my word-count), the latest interactive show for the under-fives at Royal & Derngate’s Underground, a ‘companion piece’ to the Alice in Wonderland show running in the Royal.

I’ve been to several of these pre-school shows before, including the excellent Where’s the Bear, Knit-wits, Wish-wash, Flathampton and What Makes us Tick?

But if you haven’t, be warned: you need flexible joints and knee pads. There’s a lot of crouching and sitting on the floor.

What makes these productions unique is that you have a small bunch of toddlers following actors dressed in funny clothes around a ‘set’ of rooms, being given little tasks and having their own conversations with the characters.

It’s a recipe for disaster really, but somehow they keep the whole thing just about together. It’s proper storytelling.

In DTRH, the ‘audience’ of kids and parents/grandparents meet the White Rabbit in the foyer, where he’s looking for ‘Mary-Ann’ and switching in and out of a Frank Spencer impersonation (one for the olds).

Then we meet Alice, the aforementioned grown-up lady dressed as a little girl, in a style to make Grayson Perry jealous (one for the arty types).

We (the audience) end up following Alice, who is following the Rabbit, down a series of small doors and tunnels, strangely decorated with oversized rabbit bottoms. Like moose-heads on the walls of a baronial dining room.

We arrive in a small room where a picnic table hangs from the ceiling adorned with upside-down cups and teapots. We’re met this time (*whispers*, same actor), by The Mad Hatter, who sits us on cushions, sings us a silly song, treats us to tea and disappears, to be replaced by the Duchess, Mr Punch and the Pig Baby.

The latter gets passed around to be rocked by the sitting toddlers, sometimes cuddled to make it snort or pushed away in bewilderment and/or fear. (*whispers* it’s a rubber pig-shaped dog chew)

Then we make jam tarts for the Queen’s party from play-dough and meet an odd caterpillar which looks like a fluffy scarf accidentally put through the tumble dryer.

There’s a clever distraction as the children see the tiny door from the famous Drink-Me/Eat-Me scene, when Alice gets them to collectively drink from a bowl using oversized straws. “It’s just blackcurrant squash Mum!” piped up one relieved boy.

When the drink’s finished, the door has been replaced by one that’s big enough for an under-five to crawl through, into another ‘land’ where they play croquet through playing cards using flamingo umbrellas and fluffy (toy) hedgehogs.

Eventually we get to meet the weirdly-Geordie Queen, who is dispatched by the cheering toddlers to a chorus of “off to your bed!” (nicer than ‘off with your head’)

The two actors manage to keep the whole thing together in a very enclosed space, and eventually the audience is ejected back into the relative sanity of the theatre bar where they can play with various props and hidden rooms.

Bonnie was completely transfixed, embracing all the ‘pretend’ tea-drinking and conversations. At three-and-three-quarters she’s probably about the ideal age for this. Younger children were either clinging to parents, or ignoring pleas to sit and rolling under curtains.

Bonnie was slightly confused about why this white rabbit, hatter, duchess and queen didn’t appear to look anything like the ones she’d seen on the big stage at the very same theatre just a couple of days earlier. But she loved it nonetheless and has talked non-stop about it to anyone who will listen.

I was slightly disappointed (alright, very stiff from kneeling) because unlike previous ‘underground’ performances, the show didn’t really move beyond one very cramped room.

However, Down the Rabbit Hole is worth the £5 ticket price to see your pre-schoolers engage with the story of Wonderland up-close and interactive – without any help from technology.  It runs until January 8.

ON the subject of Alice In Wonderland, our family went to see the ‘bigger’ show at the Royal. For the only the second time in far too many years of reviewing the Royal’s usually excellent Christmas offering, I was disappointed (the other one was the Ugly Duckling one).

It had an enthusiastic cast, including a Queen of Hearts channeling her best Queenie from Blackadder while dressed like Vivienne Westwood and Lady Gaga’s laundry had been mixed up in the launderette. Hatter was engaging, and the lizard bloke works his socks off. But presented with one of the most magical and familiar stories ever, the plot was ludicrous. Unengaging in most parts, using slapstick more akin to the imported panto next door. That’s not what the Royal’s Christmas show is about. A woman behind me actually fell asleep. A return to the magic and other-worldliness next year please?

Peppa Pig’s Party, Royal & Derngate, Northampton, March 19-20, 2011

BONNIE, aged 3, has been quite beside herself with excitement as she knew there was a promise of a trip to see Peppa Pig.

Peppa Pig’s Party is a touring show with live puppets of Peppa, George plus all their friends. Needless to say Northampton’s Derngate auditorium was packed to the rafters with excited under-fives.

Good puppets

Bonnie was dumbstruck as the show opened and Susie Sheep appeared, talking to the audience, perched a-top a tent. But as the show progressed and the visible human puppeteers shared stage time with her cartoon heroes, she lost interest.

The puppets are very impressive and the actors do their best to imitate the voices of the TV characters. There was singing and dancing, and George’s tantrum tears soaked a few rows of the audience, to much hilarity. But sadly there was little else of the familiar humour of the cartoon show in the stage script.

The shrill voice of Peppa’s new human ‘friend’ Daisy made me wince throughout, and the whole affair seemed remarkably short. About an hour with a very long interval to buy merchandise? At £15.50 a ticket? A family ticket over £50? Not very good value for money, but not, I suspect, the fault of Derngate, as touring shows tend to set their own prices.

We felt further mugged when we found it cost £7 for a light-up windmill (take your old one from the panto), £5 for a very cheap and flimsy programme filled with Peppa product adverts, and most shocking, £4 for a balloon. Yes, four pounds for a balloon!

So, five shows in two days in a 2,000 seat theatre, at £15ish a head and a tenner per family for merchandise. . .well, you do the maths.

It all sounds rather greedy, raking in parents’ cash off the back of Peppa Pig’s popularity, and yet there’s a lot better children’s theatre out there struggling to make ends meet.

Sorry Peppa, but it was an expensive disappointment.


Review. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Royal Theatre Northampton.

Firstly, I should declare an interest. My two elder sons are in the ‘junior company’ of the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, running at Northampton’s Royal Theatre until January 9th.

However, as any parent who has had to endure school plays will know, it ain’t automatically good just ‘cos your offspring are in it. (Hand in the rose-tinted specs as you leave).

 Adam Baxter as Tumnus and Hayley Ellenbrook as Lucy (pic Robert Day)

But I’m not coming to LWW just as a doting parent. I’ve reviewed productions at Northampton’s theatres for ten years or more. As a local reviewer, you have to be honest, not sycophantic, but can’t be deliberately brutal like those who swan in and out of town for the Nationals.

Thing is, this version of the Lion is actually really good. And I am completely ‘meh’ about all the Narnia stories. They just didn’t do it for me as adventures. I’m almost wishing I could find something wrong with the Royal’s version to show I’m not just bigging up something which has my kids in it.

Director Dani Parr has a track record of making un-patronising, entertaining theatre for children. And although this story, published in 1950 and set in the war years, is far from ‘modern,’ our seven-year-old was gripped throughout.

White Witch (Georgina White) and Edmund (Peter McGovern) (pic Robert Day)

You spend quite a lot of time just gawping at the breadth of skills displayed by the actors. The striking and sickeningly-talented Georgina White, when not camping it up as the evil White Witch, also flits on and off stage to the visible ‘orchestra’ areas to play the saxophone and bassoon. All four adults-playing-kids Peter, Lucy, Edmund and Susan are capable singers and also play instruments (did I mention it had singing in it? My kids didn’t either).

The set, as usual with the Royal, is stunning and clever and still manages to surprise. The wooden panelling is a great idea to show the evacuees’ home. And when the Wardrobe is opened to show the snow-bound Narnia, there’s a blast of cold air emanating from the stage to further stimulate the audience . Costumes too, are inspiring (I found myself envying the white queen’s fur-trimmed coat and wondering if I could get away with wearing it for the school run).

Newcomer Hayley Ellenbrook is endearing and believable as Lucy, a role that could so easily irritate by a less able actor. Peter McGovern’s Edmund is suitably detestable, while Mr And Mrs Beaver (Louise Shuttleworth and Matthew Henry) add a welcome touch of humour in a show that’s about as non-Christmassy as it’s possible to be, despite an appearance by the Big Man Himself.

Usually there’s at least one mis-cast member of a production, but in L, W and W I just could fault anyone. Perhaps, just an itty-bitty-trying-to-find-a- criticism would be that there are too many damn children in it. But mine are great. Natch.

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe runs at the Royal Theatre, Northampton, until January 9. Call 01604 624811 for tickets.

Dr Who Exhibition, Life Centre, Newcastle, until October 31, 2010.

ON returning to the fantastic four, to relieve the exhausted grandparents, we visited the Dr Who Exhibition at the Life Centre in Newcastle.

Once we’d seen a beautiful film in the planetarium about astronauts, and argued about where the exhibition actually began, we were greeted by the sight of two headless Matt Smiths: mannequins in his debut episode outfit and his tweed and dicky-bow get-up.

He’s a skinny boy, but enormous compared to Billie, Kylie, Karen and Alex Kingston, whose costumes wouldn’t even have fitted me as a hat.

Onward to the fallen-over Tardis, squishy aliens and moving baddies, including the red spider empress-thing, the Face of Boe, Weeping Angels, scary santas, Clockwork Frenchmen and of course, Cybermen and Daleks.

Bonnie was having none of it. She went from being very excited to being very insistent on leaving, so Grandma took her off to play elsewhere.

Six-year old Billy was brave, but literally leapt into my arms with fear when we went into a seemingly empty space to be ‘scanned.’ I don’t want to write a spoiler, but there are life-sized moving daleks involved. Brilliant.

face of boe

The exhibition is great for recent Dr Who fans, but don’t expect Time Lord history, as there’s nothing older than about five years. And very annoyingly, there’s a video clip from a related episode running on a loop within every few feet, plus repetitive sound effects. It’s a messy, distracting cacophony that lends little to the visuals. All they need to do is run the video clips on mute, and the whole thing would be far easier to process.

If you’re in the Newcastle area before October 31, it’s worth a visit. The Life Centre is right next door to the central station.


Review, Flathampton, Royal & Derngate to Saturday 17 July

ROYAL & Derngate should be applauded for it’s determination to provide innovative, engaging theatre for pre-schoolers. It’s always going to be unpredictable.

This time it’s a huge production, with a larger audience. Flathampton uses the entire Derngate auditorium, with the seats removed. The whole space has become a giant children’s playmat.

Like previous shows, Knit-Wits, Wish-Wash and Where’s the Bear, Flathampton is directed by Northampton’s own Dani Parr and doesn’t involve toddlers sitting wriggling on grown-up laps. Everyone’s part of the ‘show.’

You’re greeted by the bus conductor in the foyer and taken up and down stairs and through to Flathampton, where a story emerges. Everything in Flathampton is flat, until former resident Kate arrives and converts the horizontal set into a vertical, 3D one. It’s like watching dozens of under-sixes make a town from baby-flat-pack.

There are actors in character controlling an area of the town – the children can DJ at the music-store, dress-up at the make-over shop, visit the post-office, get money from the Flathampton Bank to spend at the grocer’s and treat their parents at the hospital. It’s chaos, but the kids adored it.

Our two-year old and six-year old were baffled at first (too long queuing for the bus) but were soon running around trying everything and talking to the characters. After an hour and a half they had to be prised out of the theatre.

Try and get a ticket if you can, embrace your inner-child, and enjoy a visit to a show that’s anything but flat.

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