The Lion Inside at Rose Theatre Kingston and on tour – review

Sarah Punshon’s world premiere stage adaptation of Rachel Bright and Jim Field’s best-selling children’s book is on the prowl across the nation

Caitlin Mallory (as Lion) and James Keningale (as Mouse) in a scene from The Lion Inside
Caitlin Mallory (as Lion) and James Keningale (as Mouse) in The Lion Inside, © Pamela Raith

Very young children are a refreshingly guileless audience: totally honest, unfettered by preconceptions of how you “should” behave in the theatre, and completely, delightfully engaged in what they’re watching…until it loses them. Parents taking their youngsters to this colourful mini-musical based on Rachel Bright and Jim Field’s much-loved book, are unlikely to get much trouble from their offspring though, so imaginative and good-humoured is Sarah Punshon’s adaptation.

Punshon also directs, and she’s done a lovely job of giving theatrical life to this story of a rambunctious lion being frightened by a shy mouse, and both of them discovering that nobody’s all weak or all strong.

Eamonn O’Dwyer’s peppy, lilting songs and the brilliant puppets (directed by Laura Cubitt and designed by Chuck Brown for Unit 9 Puppet Workshop) are major assets to this hour-long slice of fun, as is the trio of hard-working performers.

Kids relish the chance to roar like the king of the jungle (“show me your claws!” bellows Caitlin Mallory’s Elvis Presley-inspired Lion), and love the rude bits (look out for the pooping hippo with a wind problem, my personal favourite) and the many moments where they get to call back to the cast onstage. Adults in attendance may find themselves marvelling at how camp it all is (the fashionista zebras are a scream) but also the ingenuity with which animals from the savanna are conjured up with the simplest of props, such as a pair of tusks for a buffalo, or antlers for some gazelles.

Brown’s puppets do a spectacularly inventive job not only of visualising the two main characters as they appear in Field’s original illustrations, but also of playing around with perspective and size so that we see the mouse (a winning James Keningale) both as he sees himself and also as others see (or don’t see) him, as a tiny little being.

It’s all beautifully done, from Oli Townsend’s earthily coloured, deceptively clever set design to the gigantic lion effect at the end, although to be fair, you really need to be seated centrally to fully appreciate it.

Clarke Joseph-Edwards has real comic sparkle as the narrator and in several other roles, and Mallory’s Lion is just adorable. Keningdale, costumed like a children’s TV presenter topped off with a pair of giant ears, sings his heart out in a Mouse ballad so exquisitely crafted that it wouldn’t sound out of place in a full-length musical, but that was the only moment where some of the smaller audience members were getting restless.

Mostly though, The Lion Inside is that rare animal, a family show that keeps everyone happy. It’s very funny, a little bit naughty, inspirationally bonkers, and cute but never cloying.