Andy Stanton and David Tazzyman's award-winning children's book, Mr. Gum and the Dancing Bear, is now a musical directed by Amy Hodge, with music by Jim Fortune and a captivating set and costumes by Georgia Lowe. It's landed at the National's Dorfman Theatre for the summer (yes, that means you might be able to snag a Kids' Week freebie child's ticket to the show.
Even if you can't, under-18s get half-price tickets, and the trip to the fictional town of Lamonic Bibber is so worth it. The production is creative, silly, chaotic, fun, heartwarming and has something for everyone.
Kate Malyon and Keziah Joseph in Mr Gum and the Dancing Bear. Photo: TheOtherRichard
The show brings to life the hilarious story of fun-hating, child-detesting Mr Gum (Steve Furst), who - surprise, surprise - also doesn't love the idea of a massive bear called Padlock (Kate Malyon doing some impressive puppetry) being around. He's as tall as 40 hamsters! he weighs as much as 19,000 grapes! It's up to nine-year-old Polly (Keziah Joseph) and her pals to save the day - and the bear.
Our 9-year-old co-reviewer, who had read the book, gushed at how "amazingly they brought everything to life." All of her favourite scenes in the book were reimagined as she'd hoped, from the pustulent verrucas covering butcher Billy (Helena Lymbery) and Mr Gum after a rough time at sea to the corpulent Jonathan Ripples (Gary Wilmot) taking to the skies in his hot air balloon. Even sad bits, like the bear's illness as a result of being in the Land of Men, were handled with creativity and wit: bits of cardboard fell from Padlock's costume (and the sky!) to signify his ailing health.
The inventiveness and playfulness of the production was a pleasure, from musicians turning into ship's crew members with the help of tattooed full-sleeve T-shirts, to a sky full of a canopy of leaf-patterned and green umbrellas representing the jungle.
There is also plenty of kid-pleasing silliness thanks to the quirky humour of the author and production team: a gingerbread biscuit man sage who happens to be the school principal, Alan Taylor (Richard Cant), a scene with dancing life-size food (the result of Jonathan Ripples' world tour fantasy of eating his way through every global destination), Microscopic Bobby (an invisible character with many near-death and actual death experiences) and a disco ball of friendship that emits light to all who see it and reunites the group of friends.
Gary Wilmot, Keziah Joseph, Kate Malyon and Richard Cant in Mr Gum and the Dancing Bear. Photo: TheOtherRichard
As with all good kids' shows, there are also deeper messages that emerge: the frustrations of being a misunderstood kid (Polly happens to be nine), putting others before yourself, the power of friendship. The musical numbers were well-integrated and had audience members cackling; kids were dancing along and mimicking the hand gestures as directed in the final numbers.
The show includes choreography by Fleur Darkin, sound design by Carolyn Downing and puppetry by Jimmy Grimes.
There is plenty of humour for adults, too: a David Attenborough sighting among the jungle animals, Mr Gum's insistence that the show retain continuity (which requires Billy to be soaked in water to reflect time spent in the sea), quick-fix costume changes involving patchy facial hair and wigs. The characters seamlessly switch from lead roles to ensemble actors, as do the musicians.
The set pleasingly makes use of multiple levels, so no matter where you're sitting, you get an interesting view. Lucky Pit members may be harassed by Billy before the show, looking for beer, or cash to buy beer, to help a rather desperate Mr Gum.
The show works well for anyone who's read the books but also translates to a younger audience and would suit kids 6+. It's a more inventive and unexpected production than the typical West End fare and it definitely leaves kids wanting more Mr Gum (which means more reading, yay!).
An hour before each 2pm performance, there will be free family activities in the foyer and there will be family workshops tied in with certain performances (list below).
Mr Gum family workshop: Heroes and Villains Thu 8 Aug, 10.30am
Learn the songs of Mr Gum Tue 13 Aug, 11am
Mr Gum family workshop: Heroes and Villains Wed 14 Aug, 2pm
Explore the world of Mr Gum (relaxed workshop) Sat 17 Aug, 11am
Mr Gum family workshop: Heroes and Villains Wed 21 Aug, 10.30am
Learn the songs of Mr Gum Thu 22 Aug, 11am
Mr Gum Family Workshop: Write Your Own Songs Wed 28 Aug, 10.30am
Mr Gum family workshop: Heroes and Villains Thu 29 Aug, 2pm
|What||Mr Gum and the Dancing Bear, National Theatre|
|Where||National Theatre, South Bank, London, SE1 9PX | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Waterloo (underground)|
25 Jul 19 – 31 Aug 19, various
|Price||£15 and up|
|Website||Click here to book|