Adapter Mike Kenny and director Gail McIntyre bring a disarming modesty to their version of Flat Stanley, Jeff Brown’s well-loved tale of the boy who gets squashed flat by a bulletin board. Before the start Stanley’s pyjama-clad brother, Arthur, is disturbed in his conversations with the children in the audience by his mother’s summons. The actors are needed to build the set which they do in a frantic flurry of apologies – clearly it should have been done beforehand, but somebody forgot!
The designs (by Karen Tennent) are simple, witty and ingenious. Essentially the whole set is transformed, appropriately enough, into one great bulletin board covered, at one time or another, by everything from eggs to kites. The kite-flying episode produces a delightfully liberating sequence with the Stanley-kite dive-bombing the audience, but Flat Stanley is generally kept earthbound and upright by being joined at the feet to the resourceful Stewart Cairns.
Little has been cut from the original story, with episodes like catching the thief at the gallery and posting Stanley coast-to-coast illustrating the joys of flatness. The humour is infectiously silly and the serious points are never laboured, but the messages are there about sibling rivalry (Arthur resents the attention Stanley receives) or the outsider in society (Stanley, once feted, is scorned and mocked). Nor are the adults neglected, with some gentle satire on the American way of life, various surreal headlines (“Robot Man Tiddlywink Champion”) on Mr. Lambchop’s breakfast newspaper and a sly running gag about thieves who will steal anything.
Lisa Howard and Robin Simpson are splendidly earnest as the Lambchop parents, Ian Bonar strives determinedly for their attention as Arthur and all three relish the silly moustaches, odd hats and odder accents of assorted other parts. A tendency to slip into bursts of doo-wop or barber shop (well sung, too) affects the entire cast, with the family’s daily Breakfast Song, with music by Julian Ronnie, a highlight and thoroughly worth its reprise as a finale.
Aimed at 3-year-olds upwards, Flat Stanley is energetic, inventive and amusing, radiating good humour and mischief. After its run at Leeds, it spends some time in London at the Wimbledon home of co-producers Polka Theatre.
- Ron Simpson (reviewed at the West Yorkshire Playhouse)