Oxford Playhouse, May 30th - June 1st 2016
As the UK's bestselling author, Julia Donaldson has an army of loyal fans, and justifiably so; her books are wise, funny, profound and insightful. They're also pure poetry to read aloud.
What many of her fans don't know, however, is that Donaldson began her career busking and writing songs for children's television shows. And that it was one of those songs - A Squash and a Squeeze - which first brought her to the attention of an astute children's book editor, who suggested the song be turned into a book, paired Donaldson with illustrator Axel Sheffler, and thus launched the most successful children's author of her generation.
Given her musical and performance background, it is fitting that Donaldson is currently touring her stage show: a combination of stories and songs based on five of her best-loved books, enchanting packed houses of over-excited children around the UK.
Gruffalos, Ladybirds and Other Beasts is a family affair in more ways than one. The five-strong cast includes Donaldson, her husband Malcolm and her sister, Mary Moore. The cast is completed by two energetic young performers, Joanna Hutt and James Huntington; the cast throughout are vibrant, engaged and entertaining.
The show takes in five of Donaldson's best-loved books: Jack and the Flumflum Tree, What the Ladybird Heard, A Squash and a Squeeze, Zog and (of course) The Gruffalo. There is a simple but effective set: the show's conceit begins in a library, the bookshelves of which are transformed, in turn, into a boat, a farmyard backdrop, the sky and a deep, dark wood. Peppered throughout the show are catchy songs and a healthy dose of audience participation.
Arguably, the highlight of the show is A Squash and A Squeeze, not just because of the poignancy of knowing that this was where Donaldson's career began, or because of the fact that it's an infectious tune that you'll be singing long after you've returned home. The story is told with puppets and the original text expanded with witty one-liners, bringing a playfulness and unadulterated joy to the stage. And there is a certain joy, too, in watching Donaldson jig on stage in front of seven hundred parents and children in awe of both the woman and her words.
Gruffalos, Ladybirds and Other Beasts is a theatrical hour of pure family pleasure. There is everything a family audience could want: timeless stories, catchy songs, puppetry, audience participation and boundless energy from the performers. And then there is, of course, the pleasure of watching Donaldson perform her stories herself. Watching the show, one is reminded - if ever one needed to be - that Donaldson has a rare gift for rhyme, story and poetry. What one learns during this show is that she's also an exuberant and endearing performer too.
Gruffalos, Ladybirds and Other Beasts, with Julia Donaldson will be at Bristol Old Vic July 16-17 2016
Photo credits: Steve Ullathorne