The writing of Jacqueline Wilson has always appealed to the modern generation because her themes focus on life-affecting issues many young readers may find themselves suffering from, whether it's pet bereavement, abuse, divorce or – like Tracy Beaker – parental abandonment. Worlds away from Enid Blyton, Wilson’s honest writing recently led her to the title of Children’s Laureate, a reflection of her importance in young people’s lives.
So it’s really no surprise that her best known character should find herself ‘getting real’ on stage in a UK tour. A successful TV show (with musical star Clive Rowe) fixed her hold on the nation and now the writer of that series – Mary Morris – has penned the stage version as well. Full of well-aimed humour, ample drama and comic visuals, it reaches the audience successfully, even if it does suffer from a lack of laughter at times.
But then again, what’s funny about being given up by your mother and living in and out of foster homes? Not much. And that’s where this musical play excels; in its portrayal of the frustration, sadness and anguish caused by broken homes. In the children’s home where Tracy lives we see the aggressive Justine (Suzie McGrath), who fights mercilessly with Tracy, the bed-wetting shy boy Peter (Ryan O’Donnell) and social worker Elaine the Pain (Gemma Page). Tracy lives in a world where her mother is a Hollywood film star and she “doesn’t cry; it’s just hay fever”.
The script is very funny and very televisual – David Newman’s direction brings together a remarkable amount of short scenes in the two hour show – but for some reason, despite the numerous visual gags and well-written comic lines, there was a real lack of laughter, at least from children. Adults might possibly observe more about children’s homes than the children do; with references to cellulite, ADHD and cognitive therapy you wonder if the kids are following it at all. But they do, and seem to enjoy it nonetheless.
Whilst we’re expected to believe that Tracy throws severe temper tantrums and struggles to engage with other children, Sarah Churn’s portrayal of this girl is so full of heart and warmth, we sympathise with her and rarely see her notorious anger streak. Heartfelt ballads (by rising composer Grant Olding) offer nice soliloquies, but there’s not enough contrast elsewhere - I wanted to know why Tracy was constantly rejected as a positive candidate for fostering. Tracy’s also far too wordly for her age.
Among the supporting performances are two standout turns from the mother figures in Tracy’s life. Jessica Martin, as her real mother, convinces us she cares for Tracy before viciously turning against her again. Her voice is astonishingly powerful and her performance affecting. Likewise, Alice Redmond as Cam, a local writer who fosters Tracy, persuades us of her affection for the girl.
The books are probably as loved for their illustrations as the stories, and Nick Sharratt’s recognisable style is brought to the stage by designer Paul Wills with a very bold, striking design.
Wilson’s writing has a heartbreaking optimism that actually we all get by in the end no matter what. It’s a good show to take your kids to in order to learn some valuable lessons about life. Real life, of course.
- Jake Brunger (reviewed at the Nottingham Playhouse)