Though known for his sharp wit and biting satire, Oscar Wilde was also a voracious writer of childrens' stories, so much so that he produced two collections of them in the late 19th century. It is from these collections that Tall Stories theatre company, now celebrating its 20th anniversary, has created its newest show Wilde Creatures, which runs as part of Classic Spring's year-long Wilde celebration in the West End.
Adaptors Olivia Jacobs and Toby Mitchell succeed in capturing the nuance and intricacy of Wilde's texts while updating them for a modern, theatrical audience. The tales themselves are an interesting bunch, all tied together by a framing device about a town wanting to erect a statue for the most deserving citizen (loosely based on Wilde's The Happy Prince). The townsfolk run through the prospective subjects, elaborating on their backstories as they do so, while the Mayor vies for his own nomination.
We see a selfish farmer, a snooty student and a spoilt princess, all put up as potential (albeit flawed) effigy candidates. It's a neat structure, easily accessible for all ages and ticks over nicely, though, by the middle of the second tale (about the love blind student), it does get rather repetitive.
That said, the three chosen tales are filled with pathos and irony, two key ingredients for any family theatre occasion. If anything the pieces are almost too dark – there are sudden deaths, drownings and broken hearts littered across the hour. The Gruffalo this ain't.
It's all held together by the cast of four, playing multiple roles and providing musical accompaniment across a multitude of instruments. This is where Tall Stories comes into its own, simply telling source material with a relatable candour and quirky humour. Tom Jude's Mayor has a nice and redemptive narrative arc, while Lauren Silver's petulant princess, though thoroughly unlikable, did enervate the second act with some surreal and crowd-pleasing physical silliness.
A few musical numbers are whisked through and the show is kept tight and punchy, essential for a production densely packed with four different storylines and over a dozen different characters, all within the space of 60 minutes.
This is helped by Barney George's design, an assortment of bric-a-brac and boxes placed across the Vaudeville stage – easily adaptable to suit Wilde's tales. For all their functionality, however, the boxes make the set dull and desaturated, with shades of brown rarely offset by Peter Harrison's lighting.
But it's commendable for Classic Spring to host a piece of children's theatre in their season, highlighting not only the variety of Wilde's work, but also the importance of making such writers relevant to all ages. It may not be as showy as some other family offerings in London, but Tall Stories succeed in doing what it does best – bringing shows to young audiences, and sowing the seeds for a lifelong love of theatre.
Wilde Creatures runs at the Vaudeville Theatre until 31 December.