Now this was a show the kids were excited about. They are both Mr Gum devotees, with thr books in pride of place on Reuben’s book shelf and the audiobooks on permanent rotation in the car. They were sure this was going to be amazing. I was more cautious – it’s a daring decision to adapt the fifth book in a series into a stand alone piece and “Dancing Bear” is the most ambitious book of the lot too….while most of the series takes place in and around Lamonic Bibber, this one traverses the world in search of the Kingdom of the Beasts. So big ambitions but I was curious to see how it would be done.
Of course the first challenge was to find the Dorfman Theatre. I knew it was part of the National Theatre and roughly somewhere near the Royal Festival Hall but I don’t think I’ve been to the National Theatre since my sister took me to see Midsummer Night’s Dream there in 1995. Still, we successfully navigated the tunnels under Waterloo roundabout and popped out on the west side of the NT near the Reuben Library:
Turns out we should have turned right instead of left at the back of the building because the Dorfman Theatre is on the east side of the NT and the entrance is near the back. Luckily we had left plenty of time to find it, so still had enough time to eat a sandwich in a deckchair:
The actual theatre was relatively intimate, with traverse seating so that you were never far from the action. A large slab of meat hung from the ceiling as Billy William and Mr Gum growled around the edge of the stage, looking for beers. I don’t think I was the only one to jump when Mr Gum suddenly shouted “Shut up, all of you!” and the show began. It was very in character though.
There were some immediate differences with the book…the order of events was slightly different and the framing device (Billy and Mr Gum need money for booze) given the opening slot, rather than Andy Stanton’s slightly rambling monologue about bears. It worked very well and introduced loads of new sight gags straightaway. I won’t tell you what they are because I don’t want to spoiler but it’s a good sign that the show can make two kids laugh out loud within minutes despite knowing every joke in the book.
There were some slight variations in the characters as well. Mr Gum and Billy were exactly as you’d imagine them but Polly was played by a grown woman, which takes some adapting to when you picture her as someone Reuben’s age. It’s a credit to Keziah Joseph that by the end of the first half, she was just Polly…no overthinking needed. Oh and she reeled off Polly’s full name flaewlessly so yknow, extra kudos for that.
Other changes included Friday O’Leary having a much bigger part in the story than he does in the book (where he’s inexplicably missing for the vast majority of the plot) and there’s some added emotional depth to Jonathan Ripple’s storyline. They are subtle changes but help to flesh the show out and help the plot to flow
And of course there were the songs! Big, theatrical numbers with knowing touches (“This is the saddest song in the show”). There’s a disco ball, glitter, even a dancing pizza slice at one point. Mr Gum may have poured scorn at the idea of being in a musical at the beginning but soon he’s jazz-handing just like everybody else. Well, almost.
The production values are very slick. From butcher’s shop to South Pacific, the set changes effortlessly and there are some great touches in the design – like Alan Taylor’s series of books covering animals from A-Y and then “Zebras”, and the Lamomic Bibber neon signs which Billy vandalises to read “Bear”. Oh yes, and there was a massive bear as part of the cast. I almost forgot that.
As a show it works very well – the story is self contained and not too complicated. There are probably some parts which would make less sense if you were new to the world of Mr Gum – like I’m not sure they ever mentioned that Billy was a butcher so you might wonder why he’s covered in blood. But there is an excellent program that was given out free to all the kids, which had mini bios of the characters along with a bonus Mr Gum story…well half of one anyway.
I won’t say too much more because the show really has to be seen to be fully appreciated…but I did ask the kids to sum it up in one word. Roo chose “hilarious” and Eva said “Can I use a few words instead? Too brilliant for words!” What more endorsement do you need??
Mr Gum and the Dancing Bear is now booking to 31st August. For tickets and more information, click here.
Disclaimer: I received free press tickets in exchange for a review. All opinions remain honest and my own.