The retelling of classic fables on stage has established a new wave of accessible children's productions in recent years. An attractive introduction to young audiences that can, on occasion, derive formulaic, clichéd material that fails to engage fresh minds. This is certainly not the case with Tony and Mike or The Country Owl and The City Squirrel that premiered at The Lowry as the first ‘Developed With' family show.
On paper Tony and Mike ticks all the usual boxes; puppetry, laughter, music and a contemporary reworking of The Town Mouse and The Country Mouse, but even as the doors to The Lowry Studio opened and kids, parents and grandparents took their seats in a glowing wilderness it was clear that this witty, absorbing tale was packed with engaging momentum from the start.
This brand new piece by award-winning theatre makers Tom Frankland and Laura Mugridge opens to a ripple of excitement as Joe and Charlotte embark on a move to the countryside and away from their urban lives. But there are obstacles in their way; most notably in the form of Tony the Owl who hoots insults from his tree, and Charlotte's yearning for the convenience of her former existence.
City Squirrel Mike and his human counterpart Joe are keen to immerse themselves in country living — from wellies and courgettes to ‘music for gardeners' — until eventually their tenacity prevails, friendships flourish and Charlotte and Tony accept that being different is okay.
Not a second of this 45-minute piece is wasted. Intelligent set changes transition the audience seamlessly between country and city life. Wonderfully acted puppetry — the puppets themselves were impressively crafted by Manchester-based maker Fiona Meakin — creates strong identities that are easily distinguishable to children. Comedic touches, original music and an engaging narrative plays out to a sea of delighted faces.
Frankland and Mugridge exude natural warmth and a playful ideology that captivates their audience. Although they have been making original theatre for over a decade, Tony and Mike is their first ever family production, and part of The Lowry's innovative Accelerate Scheme.
Opening night nerves aside, Tony and Mike is an engaging and inspiring production that embraces diversity and encourages acceptance, and is one of the best pieces of children's theatre that I have seen in a long time.
- Sarah Bloomer