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Charlie and Lola’s Extremely New Play

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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There have been so many advances in the use of puppetry and music in mainstream theatre recently that it's slightly disappointing to find the dear little Polka Theatre still using cut-out cartoons and the whole audio side of things piped on a soundtrack.

In his defence, director Roman Stefanski might point to the primitive, one-dimensional simplicity of children's author Lauren Child's characters - Charlie and Lola are brother and sister, and Lola has a best friend Lotta - and indeed story lines: Charlie's chum Marv has a dog called Sizzles whom the girls take for a walk in the park, and lose, and find again.

Jonathan Lloyd's adaptation and Laura McEwen's design are certainly faithful to all this simplicity, and it's fair to say that the target audience of 4-7 year-olds was enthralled - especially when the theatre was engulfed in snowflakes in winter and then bubbles and flying fish on a visit to the pond in the garden, easily the highlights.

Charlie and Lola live on Crocodile Street, go to school, have meals and, almost incidentally, a few adventures, either with Sizzles - a dog who can do anything, including acrobatic cartwheels and painting the Mona Lisa - or with grey squirrels and imaginary pirates.

The cut-outs, as well as the clever adaptable settings, are visibly manipulated by five puppeteers. I don't understand why this glum, greyly attired quintet doesn't do the talking as well. The effect is to make them seem more lifeless even than their inanimate charges.

But I still love the Polka and I note with some pleasure that they now offer a baby play, Lullaby, for children under one-year-old (and their mummies, or daddies, or minders) in a sort of mini-marquee washed in music, gurgles and relaxing, ambient sound. And they still serve soft drinks and yummy cakes in the café with its toy train compartments.


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