From a joyous Mancunian Wiz to the most charming of Beasts – the best Christmas family shows

·7-min read

Hull Truck; Hope Mill, Manchester; Barn, Cirencester; New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme; Watermill, Newbury
The Railway Children reduces our critic to tears, and a topical take on The Wizard of Oz blows her away as festive family shows return with a bang around the country


Covid precautions duly observed, it’s time for the seasonal celebrations of togetherness that were so cruelly derailed last year by the virus. Full steam ahead for family shows! First off, Hull Truck’s The Railway Children. Mike Kenny’s adaptation of E Nesbit’s book was a runaway success when it was launched at the National Railway Museum in 2008, and not just because it featured a real steam train. The story of three children adapting to a new life after their father is wrongly accused of a crime, and giving shelter to a Russian refugee cruelly torn from his own family by an autocratic regime, is set at the beginning of the 20th century, but the themes it explores – of separation and loss, poverty and pride, kindness and sharing – are timeless.

At the suggestion of director Mark Babych, for this latest production Kenny has teamed up with the composer John Biddle. The introduction of new songs and incidental music brings a fresh energy to the script and heightens its emotive impact. Adult actors, taking on the roles of narrators and children, strike just the right notes of innocence and curiosity. Ciaran Bagnall’s single set, surrounded by revolving railway track, summons to our imaginations family homes, a railway station, a tunnel, a cutting and a steam train coming to a sudden halt. Was there a dry eye in the house at the conclusion, when Gina Jamieson’s Bobby, seeing her father walking along the track towards her, called out: “Oh Daddy, my Daddy”? My eyes were too full of tears to tell.

When Bella and the prince kissed, the matinee primary-school audience groaned “Yeugh!” What praise could be higher?

I didn’t think I could love any version of Frank L Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz better than the 1939 musical with Judy Garland – until I experienced Hope Mill theatre’s sizzling, joyous new production of The Wiz.

“You’ve got more energy than a freight train,” Aunt Em declares to Dorothy as she hangs washing on a rack beside a flickering TV (she might just as well have been describing the multitalented, 14-strong cast and eight-member, offstage band). Dorothy pauses to watch televised footage of 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests in the UK, and the unveiling of the mural of the footballer Marcus Rashford. This opening isn’t Kansas any more, but 21st-century Manchester.

Suddenly, the TV flashes “No Signal”; horns blare, dancers surge, whirling on to the tiny stage. A tornado transformation: black curtains disappear to reveal bricks multicoloured with graffiti, the word “Oz” swirled in huge letters (Simon Kenny’s design); Munchkins; good witch; dead witch; silver shoes… we’re back on familiar, fictional territory – sort of. The 1974 stage musical, by William F Brown (book) and Charlie Smalls (music and lyrics), reimagines MGM’s take on Baum’s story from an urban, African American perspective, and was subsequently adapted into a 1978 film starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. Scarecrow (the impossibly bendy Tarik Frimpong), wheeled on in a shopping trolley, asks Dorothy for money to buy brains. No cash? “Credit cards accepted!”

Director Matthew Xia and his team keep the focus of the action tight, the choreography (Leah Hill) sharp and the music (Sean Green’s orchestrations) full of soul, as well as soca, R&B, funk, gospel, hip-hop… Powerful characterisations are subtly drawn (excepting Ashh Blackwood’s Evillene – wicked through and through). As Dorothy, Cherelle Williams is simply superb.

The Brothers Grimm Present: Cinderella at the Barn in Cirencester is a ball. A band of actor-singer-musicians playing klezmer-influenced songs (composed by Tarek Merchant) appear in a puff of smoke, rising through a trapdoor; a giant book looms out of shadows, images streaming across its blank pages (projected animations by Bryony Collishaw and Benjamin Collins); tree trunks soar out of sight. Cory Shipp’s atmospheric design makes much of little.

Alan Pollock’s new adaptation glances slyly towards the classic Disney film, but his main source is the folklore that inspired the Grimms’ tales, although here it is less gruesome, more humorous. Cinderella’s beard-sporting stepmother, played with relish by Jesse Ashby, shoves underwear into a bodice to swell a bosom; Tanya Bridgeman’s energetic Cinderella wins the heart of Matthew Romain’s flustered Prince by telling him stories – the first involves a loud fart.

An overabundance of stories threatens to overwhelm Pollock’s plot (at one point, a police procedural intertwines with Red Riding Hood) but Francesca Goodridge’s pacy direction keeps the action lively and the audience up to speed.

Director-adapter Theresa Heskins similarly gives Disney a swerve, and weaves her enchanting Beauty and the Beast for the New Vic from the original story by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, published in 1740. We meet the Beast as a human boy, on his sixth birthday. For a present, his Warrior Queen mother (ferociously martial Polly Lister) gives him the newly defeated Goblin Queen (Danielle Bird, radiating mischief). A goblin trick and a couple of spells later, the boy is a beast, his mother a stone statue. Decades pass. Bella, too, is tricked – by her sisters, who take her to the Beast’s castle on the pretext that the owner wants to employ her on a cleaning contract. The Beast roars (the children in the auditorium jump), the sisters flee. Bella must stay (Rhiannon Skerritt combining brave resolution with stark terror).

The company’s storytelling, under Heskins’s direction, is masterly. On the geometrically marked, in-the-round stage, an interplay of music (James Atherton), lights and projections (Daniella Beattie) and set (Laura Willstead) conjures the castle: doorframes and chandeliers rise and fall. Bella and mechanical servant Wheeliam move as if through long corridors, into a multiplicity of rooms. Time’s passage is marked by increasingly speedy progressions along the same route: loping on jumping stilts, Nicholas Richardson’s Beast, touchingly pathetic beneath his pelt, repeats: “Marry me”; Bella, quick-stepping away, refuses each request. Impossible not to pity both.

The only section of the production that felt forced and short on emotional charge was Bella’s return home. Her concluding reunion with the Beast, though, was thoroughly satisfying. When she and the returned-to-human prince kissed, the matinee’s primary-school audience groaned “Yeugh!” What praise could be higher?

Finally, to Newbury’s Watermill. Brought up by beasts – first wolves, then Bagheera the panther and Baloo the bear – Mowgli’s quest, in Tom Jackson Greaves’s adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, is framed by the question: “How will I know who I might be/ When I can’t see anyone who looks like me?” (poems and lyrics by Sanah Ahsan).

The action, sidestepping both Disney and Kipling, feels secondary to messages about identity-forming and belonging. That said, individual scenes, played to Dom Coyote’s score, swing merrily along (notably partying monkeys inciting the audience to imitate them), Karishma Young’s Mowgli is soulful and the actor-musician ensemble is accomplished (special mention to Peter Ashmore’s tiger and Guido Garcia Lueches’s jackal-narrator).

Stoker, keep that engine fired – family shows are rolling.

Star ratings (out of five)
The Railway Children ★★★★
The Wiz ★★★★★
The Brothers Grimm Present: Cinderella ★★★
Beauty and the Beast ★★★★
The Jungle Book ★★★

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