Review: Kiki's Delivery Service (Southwark Playhouse)

Japanese author Eiko Kadono’s award-winning book is adapted for the stage by Jessica Siân

Every now and then a show comes along with little fanfare or expectation and quietly knocks your Christmas stockings off. Southwark Playhouse's festive offering is one such, it is an absolute delight.

Based on a Japanese children's story by Eiko Kadono, it's the cautionary tale of a trainee teenage witch named Kiki (adorably sincere Alice Hewkin) who sets up a delivery service in her adopted "city by the sea", asking to be paid only in kindness rather than money. Along the way she learns valuable lessons about friendship, the importance of not letting people down, not over-committing oneself and not showing off. With her cartoon-like red bow, Kiki is a very modern take on witchery, although she does have a cat of course (Matthew Forbes' hilariously disdainful Jiji, who comes pretty close to stealing the show).

The plot turns on Kiki's quest to secure a missing cog for the town clock as New Year's Eve looms and the city is threatened with being stuck in the preceding year. So far, so cute.

It could all have been tooth-achingly twee and didactic but the sheer nimble energy and quicksilver invention of Kate Hewitt's masterful staging ensures that it never is. On Simon Bejer's elegant and deceptively simple set of multiple boxes, Hewitt uses puppetry, rough magic, a poignant score (Max Pappenheim) and some beautiful video (Andrzej Goulding, bravo) to propel the story. What's more, you find yourself really caring about the characters. The show is also wickedly funny at times, with a sly, modern wit that will engage older kids as well as adults.

The cast numbers only six but feels like many more with everybody except Hewkin playing multiple roles, and they are all just wonderful. Tom Greaves and Anna Leong Brophy are touching as Kiki's parents but also score big comedy points as an affronted railway guard and orchestra conductor attempting to duel using a baton and a ticket puncher (you have to see this for yourself). Paksie Vernon shows real star quality as a single mum who befriends our heroine and also doubles as a pompous albatross and an equally stuck-up local dignitary while Jack Parker is perfection as a screamingly camp witchy rival and later as an unexpected but welcome love interest. I loved all of them.

If you haven't booked a family outing for the festive season yet I would urge you to consider this enchanting show. It joins the Globe's Little Matchgirl and Polka's Babe the Sheep Pig as fine examples of family entertainment that aren't panto. I loved every minute of it. There's even flying, and it is just as unexpected and exhilarating as everything else about this little gem.

Kiki's Delivery Service runs at Southwark Playhouse until 8 January 2017.

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