The National’s fun-filled family show
Ferocious Fun! Wit! Anarchy!
The National pulls out all the stops this summer for its new family show, Mr Gum and the Dancing Bear.
Amy Hodge directs this spirited, weird and wonderful musical, adapted by Andy Stanton from his own book about a bear abducted for the stage, with music by Jim Fortune.
Georgia Lowe’s set and costumes are a riot of colour – everything a little larger than life – with huge sunflowers, gigantic pizza slices, sushi rolls, pink sugared doughnuts and fantastical tropical umbrellas that magically transport us to the Kingdom of Beasts.
In the imaginary town of Lamonic Bibber we meet our heroine; nine-year-old Polly (Keziah Joseph) and her eclectic group of friends – the lovely Jonathan Ripples (played by Gary Wilmott in a fat suit), quirky Friday O’Leary (Richard Cant) and Old Granny (Kate Malyon), who doubles as Paddlock the bear.
One seemingly quiet and uneventful day, much to the shock of the townsfolk, a startlingly big, wide-eyed, shaggy, rumble-me-tumble sort of bear wanders into town (animated here by a brilliant human puppet with humble, adorable, cuddle-me-bear charm).
Only brave young Polly befriends him and wipes his tears as he sobs dolefully on the town bench.
Enter our villains…
Boil-ridden and filthy, Mr Gum – played with wicked pleasure by Steve Furst – hates children. Think Roald Dahl’s Mr Twit…
His ghastly, dim-witted side-kick Billy is a character straight out of the comic mags, portrayed with glorious gurning glee by Helena Lymbery, who also doubles as a fine Captain Brazil aboard the sleazy Nantucket Tickler… There’s a decidedly nasty glint in his eye as we set out to sea…
The villain’s den is a besmirched butcher’s shop, festooned with entrails and rotting meat. Billy prowls the aisles dressed head to toe in a blood-splattered apron, pestering my surprised looking young companions and many others for beer.
On hearing of the bear’s arrival in town, this revolting pair concocts an evil plan. However, they are rather lacking in brain-matter – which makes for some wonderful slapstick as they try to earn some easy cash by making the poor bear dance. Well; we all know that that’s no life for a bear, and bears deserve to be living large, in the Kingdom of Beasts.
As fortune would have it, Polly and her friends come to the rescue – along with entertaining minor characters including the Gingerbread-Man headmaster and a tiny crew-member called Microscopic Bobby – so small nobody can actually see him.
And so, the story continues, with many laughs and much upbeat song and dance.
It’s no ordinary musical though…
It’s gloriously, uproariously bonkers! There are several catchy musical numbers, spanning all genres – including the mandatory rap, performed live by the band on the balcony.
What makes it such a likeable show is its sardonic humour. It really does cater for all ages, and also carries a message of caring for each other, and how animals shouldn’t be caged, but left to live free in their natural habitats.
My two young companions were totally spellbound by this inspired production…
I know what we’ll be reading this summer!
Playing at the Dorfman Theatre until 31 August.
The National Theatre
Upper Ground, Lambeth, London SE1 9PX