The spirit of Monty Python hangs heavily and hilariously over the National's latest offering for young people. Andy Stanton adapts his own crazy but kind kids book about the unlikely friendship between feisty nine-year-old Polly (smashing Keziah Joseph) and the giant bear she rescues from a miserable life of terpsichorean humiliation, and peppers it with bouncy songs by Jim Fortune.
Director Amy Hodge, designer Georgia Lowe and puppet maestro Jimmy Grimes have subsequently chucked buckets of rough stage magic and sheer invention at it. The result is a scattershot, uproarious, neon-bright delight that will transport children while also making the adults laugh rather more than they might have been expecting. There's a tiny school headmaster made of gingerbread (think Shrek's Gingy character but with a cut glass Home Counties accent and supercilious attitude to match) who comes and goes by motorbike, a bad tempered pigeon postman, a giant hot air balloon to whisk characters around the world, a magical tropical rainforest constructed from umbrellas…and Gary Wilmot floating high above the stage in an enormous fat suit. He plays snack-obsessed Jonathan Ripples who roams the world looking for new food experiences ("I've discovered a Norwegian sandwich. Tastes just like a normal sandwich! But it's from Norway!").
If at times it feels as though the creative team is hurling everything at the wall to see what sticks, the squeals of joy from kids and adults alike suggest that the vast majority of the comedic schtick here truly lands. I particularly enjoyed the section where Polly and Padlock The Bear run away to sea and take up with a bizarre nautical crew, led by Helena Lymbery's gloriously weird "totally mad" Captain Brazil. There's a running joke about a tiny crew member (called Microscopic Bobby) who is so small nobody can actually see him and whose unexpected demise is the set-up for one of the most rip-snortingly funny and surreal five minutes I've seen on any stage in many a month ("Microscopic Bobby was my wife").
Stanton and Hodge have created a weird, wonderful world where Richard Cant's adorable old codger Friday O'Leary can solemnly opine that "motorbikes understand the true nature of friendship" or where gross butcher Billy William (Lymbery again, terrific) can prowl the aisles pestering audience members (including the youngsters) for beer. It's simultaneously innocent and knowing (Polly even has a sardonic ballad entitled "The Saddest Song In The Show" when it looks as though she and Padlock have been cast adrift on the ocean for good by dastardly Captain Brazil), and consistently great fun for all ages.
The cast is clearly having a ball, and who can blame them. Steve Furst is gleefully nasty as the Fagin-like baddie Mr Gum, Cant and Wilmot are superb as usual, and Kate Malyon sensitively manipulates the giant bear puppet then scores major comedy points as a sherry-swigging granny hell-bent on keep-fit and outsmarting all the dim menfolk. Which is not that hard, as it turns out.
All this inspired lunacy is ultimately underpinned by serious points about the maltreatment of animals and the importance of friendship. This makes for a satisfying and worthwhile addition to the National's laudable track record of making quality entertainment for all the family. Bonkers, but in the best possible way.