Children are much better at memorising passages from favourite books than adults. Take the long, long list of concoctions which go to make up George’s marvellous medicine in the Roald Dahl book of the same name, cleverly adapted for the stage by David Wood. When it comes to making up a fresh batch in the second act of Phil Clark’s production for the Birmingham Stage Company, the audience knows exactly which peculiar additive is missing. No wonder there’s a “don’t try this at home” warning at the end of the show and in the souvenir programme.
The farmhouse set by Jacqueline Trousdale has just the right mixture of realism and distortion and the special effects and puppetry are very well handled. Farmyard noises greet the audience as it arrives and there’s an obbligato of squelches and plops, cackles, grunts, bellows and snores as the action progresses; sound design is by Tom Lishman. Alison Fitzjohn and Tom Woodman are a thoroughly credible Mum and Dad and root the fantasy of George’s wish-fulfilment in down-to-earth reality with just a very subtle hint of caricature.
George was played by understudy Jason O’Brien at the performance I saw. He makes him a gangly baseball-capped youth with all the frustrations inherent in being a sub-teenager on a busy working farm. Enter Grandma (his mother’s widowed parent), and she’s the relation from hell as far as having her as an uninvited house-guest is concerned. Erika Poole has great fun with her nastiness as she demands her own way, drinks all Dad’s gin, tries to take over the house (including turfing George out of his own room) and really deserves all that she gets. Which, of course, is plenty.
Puppet master Roman Stefanski peoples the farmyard (and on occasion the house itself0 with a wondrous array of animals. There’s a ferocious bull, a whole roost of chickens (including one enormous one, much to the audience’s delight), piglets, a cow and at least one yapping dog. Grandma’s vertical growth is particularly well handled with arm as well as leg extensions, collapsed to child-size at the end. Not perhaps a model of what country living is all about but, as far as theatre for children and their accompanying adults is concerned, an example of how to engage an audience’s attention and keep it right to the end of the show. And beyond the theatre's doors.