Gargling with Jelly at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield
Being of a rather immature disposition, the opportunity to travel to York to watch a play designed for a 'younger audience' (four years and up) was quite appealing. So, pockets brimming with sweets, I took my seat and prepared to spend a couple of hours shouting and giggling along with the rest of the kids. Apart from the odd moment, when sensible school teachers turned with a stern 'Sssssshhhhh!', we had great fun.
So what is Brian Patten's musical play about I hear you childishly scream? Doctor Sensible (a villain in the vein of television's Demon Headmaster and played by the menacing Katherine Dow Blyton) works for the Prime Minister and aims to put an end to Christmas, birthdays and all things jolly by administering her sensible medicine. Our hero Jimmy (Stuart Callaghan) stands in her way because he refuses to become as grey and miserable as Mum (Gillian Waugh), Dad (Tom Lloyd Roberts) and everyone else. The doctor has five days to make Jimmy change his daydreaming, colourful clothed ways. Which is where we, the audience, get in on the act. Jimmy, unlike the sensible adults around him, can see us and we can see the evil doctor slipping the medicine into Jimmy's cornflakes. So we shout as loud as we can because the World's fun depends on us.
Audience participation plays a big part in this piece and the young theatre patrons are actively encouraged to vent their spleens, panto style, throughout custard pie hurling, poems about nose-picking and songs about invisible cousins whose food digestion remains on display. All of which makes watching parents and teachers, whose reprimanding reflexes are lost in the ensuing cacophony, an alternative entertainment to that on stage. As a first experience of theatre, which it will be for much of the audience, it should inspire many to cajole parents into revisiting.
The play does have a few lulls between the catchy song and dance numbers (music courtesy of Chris Mellor, choreography Sue Scott Davison) and Amanda J. Smith's direction is quite possibly a little loose, for comedy, in places. Richard G. Jones lighting causes many an 'ooh' and 'aah' as it goes into full effect during the second act.
As a reviewer, I feel compelled to scratch beneath the surface to find some inherent deeper meaning. Is the Liverpool poet responsible for Gargling With Jelly (which first surfaced as a collection of poems in 1986) drawing an analogy here with the increasing worldwide use of heroin? In the adult world, it would be arguable, although for now I prefer the view that this is as innocent and well-intentioned as theatre gets. So lovers of polyemic, metaphor-ridden drama will disapprove of this oh-so-entertaining piece.
How to judge a children's play? By the reaction of the little folk in the audience I would say, all of whom appeared to have a brilliant time. Sensible types steer clear, then, this is strictly for fun-loving kids young and old.
At York Theatre Royal until 21st November
Sheffield Crucible Theatre 3rd December - 2nd January 1999