Mr Gum and the Dancing Bear: The Musical! – National Theatre, London

Book and Lyrics: Andy Stanton

Music:Jim Fortune

Director:Amy Hodge

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Schools out for the summer and theatreland has given itself over to feel-good comedies and family-friendly shows designed to entertain young and old alike. The National Theatre’s big summer production for kids is a musical adaptation of Andy Stanton’s book Mr Gum and the Dancing Beargiven surreal but charming life in the reconfigured Dorfman space using puppets, cartoonish characters and some dancing food.

Set in the fictional town of Lamonic Bibber, Polly comes across a lonely bear who she names Padlock while sitting in the town square and vows to help him find his way back to the Kingdom of the Beasts. But with the cantankerous Mr Gum determined to make the creature dance for money in his dockside lair, Polly calls on fellow townsfolk a gingerbread man called Alan Taylor, Jonathan Ripples a very fat man with hot air balloon and others, to help the bear escape.

Andy Stanton’s adaptation of his own book will probably be a fairly bizarre experience for anyone over 10-years old, but there’s enough inventiveness, charm and pure theatre craft in Mr Gum and the Dancing Bear: The Musical! to carry you away on a tide of wackiness. Running at a little under two-hours with an interval Act One has a stronger narrative drive, establishing the characters and setting them on their quest, while Act Two is full of creatively staged scenarios that the National Theatre’s design team led by Georgia Lowe have clearly had a lot of fun concocting.

Director Amy Hodge keeps things relatively muted at the start but once the show hits its wonderful dockside sequence just before the interval, it happily embraces its silliness. Everything is painted in broad strokes but Lowe and lighting designer Lee Curran suggest a real seediness to the underworld around the docks in which the Thenadier-like Mr Gum holds court, matched later by the inflation of a giant hot air balloon on stage and a beautiful sequence of leaf-patterned umbrellas unfolding over your heads as the Kingdom of the Beasts is visualised.

Jimmy Grimes’ puppets are full of character ranging from the handheld headmaster and gingerbread man Alan Taylor operated by Richard Cant to snakes incorporated into a jungle outfit and a seagull-postman on a stick. Padlock the titular dancing bear is a costume worn and operated by a Kate Malyon with a crinoline-like structure and head with a very cute moving snout that is full of melancholy as “Padders” is forced to perform for Mr Gum and later for the comedy sailors while disguised as a cat.

Keziah Joseph plays Polly as a nine-year-old wide-eyed with wonder about the world (but with questionable grammar), while musical theatre legend Gary Wilmot dons the fat suit as Jonathan Ripples desperate to escape the town. But Helena Lymbery steals the show in the dual roles of girl and bear-hating Captain Brazil and hapless henchman Billy, while Steve Furst’s Mr Gum is a quintessential boo-able baddie, although his child-hating, fun-hating, music-hating ways may not seem quite so reprehensible to over-tired Londoners.

The show has had to make a necessity of its meta-theatrical referencing to allow props to be wheeled on and off by the stage crew, and some of the words get lost in the volume of the live band, but don’t even try to fight the relentless oddity of Andy Stanton’s world. Family shows have quite a clear brief, keep it light, short and with a strong social message about self-discovery, community and friendship. Oh and always have puppets – by that criteria Mr Gum and the Dancing Bear: The Musical ticks all the boxes.

Runs Until: 31 August 2019 | Image: The Other Richard

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