The Gruffalo @ Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide 25/5/2019

First published just over twenty years ago, Julia Donaldson’s The Gruffalo endures as one of the most successful and popular children’s books having been translated into multiple languages, had millions of sales and won numerous literary awards. It is based upon an original Chinese folk tale and replaces the characters of a little girl and a tiger with a mouse and the eponymous Gruffalo respectively. This CDP Kids and Tall Stories production of The Gruffalo – Live on Stage is one of several adaptations and permutations derived from the original book that include sequels, plush toys, audio CDs and cookbooks.

In this production as part of the DreamBIG Children’s Festival 2019, all of the roles are played by just three performers. Shannen Sarstedt’s Mouse is delightful and cunning, in a costume notable for the rope mousetail used to good effect during her interactions with the Fox. Skyler Ellis has scene stealing performances as the three predators, each differing physically from those in the book and the subsequent short film adaptation from 2009. His Fox has an ocker personality along the lines of a Barry MacKenzie or Les Patterson type. The Owl is posh and decked out in air force garb, a drill sergeant type with an air of pomp and circumstance. The Snake is the most significant departure in that he does not physically appear reptilian but as more of camp narcissistic catfish moustachioed Indian snake charmer crossed with a bullfighter in a gold and silver sequinned outfit complete with golden maracas.

Prior to the arrival of the Gruffalo, Kyle Kaczmarczyk has an additional role as the physically present Narrator, at times acting as the inner dialogue of the characters, expanding upon the original text. When the Gruffalo arrives after the inventive costumery of previous characters he is somewhat disappointing, looking as unthreatening as the cowardly Lion from the Wizard of Oz in a costume appearing to be made predominantly from carpet sample offcuts. There is redemption though during an enjoyable sequence before the end when he leaves the stage and runs in fear of the Mouse around the Dunstan Playhouse seating begging for help from the audience around and above him. Other instances of breaking the fourth wall that is almost obligatory in a children’s show came from one of Skyler Ellis’s characters earlier at one point calling out “It’s in the book”, and the enthusiastic audience participation with the addition of a Fox reprise prior to the reveal of the Gruffalo.

There was much anticipation for this sold out show, the first of five performances staged over the Big Family Weekend. Regardless of the personal quibbles voiced herein I thought that it was far better than the short film adaptation that had been my previous experience of The Gruffalo franchise. Although recommended for ages 4-8, the age range of the audience was far greater and The Gruffalo – Live on Stage was an experience that was generally very well received enjoyed by all.

This was just the start for the DreamBIG Children’s Festival, the first day of events several of which I attended over the day with my children (a boy 16 months, a girl four and a half years old) culminating later in the day in a performance of Regurgitator’s Pogogo show on the Elder Hall Outdoor Stage. The highlights included Black Bugs with a potentially inappropriate sing along chorus of “What’s at the end of Satan’s rainbow?”, the intro to GN’R’s Sweet Child of Mine (unexpectedly cut short), the self-explanatory Farting Is A Part Of Life and ! (The Song Formerly Known As) which enticed the audience to dance as their set came to a close.

DreamBIG Children’s Festival Review by Jason Leigh