Since its publication in 1999 Julia Donaldson’s children’s story The Gruffalo has become something of a worldwide phenomenon. Its enduring popularity and immense success has led to the making a short animated film version in 2009, an audio book and this stage production which, I am surprised to learn, premiered way back in 2001 at the now closed Gateway Theatre in Chester.

Donaldson’s story is brilliant in its simplicity.  A clever little mouse, on the hunt for a nut, invents a scary forest creature called the Gruffalo to scare away the predators (fox, snake and owl) who want to eat him.  The Gruffalo turns out to be real and wants to eat the little mouse too, so the cunning little mouse, claiming to be the scariest creature in the forest, leads the Gruffalo into the paths of the predators who all flee in fear leaving the monster duped into thinking that all are scared of the mouse and the mouse able to find his nut in peace and safety.

Judging by the full house at the performance I attended, the story of Gruffalo continues is retaining its popularity amongst the youngsters of this world and it is refreshing to see a theatre rammed to the rafters with children - keen to experience the wonders of live theatre.

The question is, therefore, does the stage adaptation live up to the excellence of the source material?  In all honestly, this production doesn’t and sadly it suffers from some significant problems affecting all elements of the production.

There is a cast of three who, in fairness, are reasonably energetic and strike a good rapport with the youthful audience, but they are not evenly matched.  Alex Tregear has a witty charm as the mouse, sings well and her every word can be heard. 

The same cannot be said for David Garrud who plays the Fox, Owl and Snake. His characterisations suffer from poor costuming and he doesn’t look remotely like any of the animals he is playing, but he doesn’t compensate for this with his manner and gabbles all his dialogue at such a speed as to often make it incomprehensible.

Scott Armstrong looks a little uncomfortable on the stage during the early part of the show when he is storytelling, but comes into his own when he makes his rather understated first entrance as the Gruffalo.  However, his costume is also a huge let down and certainly didn’t convince the toddler next to me who, upon the Gruffalo’s entrance, announced ‘It’s not a Gruffalo. It’s a man!’
 
Original songs by Jon Fiber are put to good use, although every one is a tad too long and could do with losing a verse.

Although functional in design Isla Shaw’s set looks more like a barren desert than a deep, dark forest but is competently lit by James Whiteside

Directors Olivia Jacobs and Toby Mitchell need to look hard at this production and inject new life into it. There is huge potential here for a cracking piece of children’s theatre that, on this current tour at least, does not live up the excellent source material.

- Malcolm Wallace