Writer: Judith Kerr
Director and adaptor: David Wood
Reviewer: Nichola Daunton
A faithful adaptation of Judith Kerr’s world-famous picture book, David Wood’s script stays true to the plot and form of Kerr’s original, but sadly loses some of the books wonderful surrealism in the process.
First published in 1968, Kerr’s illustrated book has remained a firm favourite of adults and children ever since. Kerr’s own childhood, spent in Berlin in the 1930’s, was overshadowed by fear and her family was forced to flee the city in 1933, after the books of her father, an esteemed Jewish intellectual, were burned in the Opernplatz.
Children’s author Michael Rosen has even commented that The Tiger Who Came to Tea may have been influenced by Kerr’s childhood experiences, especially her fear of someone coming to the door and taking away everything that her family had, including her father. Whatever the influence, the popularity of Kerr’s book makes it prime material for a stage adaptation, particularly by David Wood, who has adapted many other children’s books in the past.
Opening with a song about how theatre tells a story, just like a book, Wood’s adaptation is aimed squarely at the under fives and intends to give them their first taste of the magic of theatre. Bouncy, smiley and colourful, the ensemble cast gives everything that you’d expect from a group of children’s actors, engaging the audience at every available opportunity. In fact, there is a good deal of audience interaction throughout the play, from some panto-esque ‘he’s behind you’, to a number of audience sing-alongs, though these are often used as filler.
Given that Kerr’s picture book is so short though, it is inevitable that parts of it had to be stretched somewhat in order to turn the play into a full 55 minutes of entertainment. Despite some repetitive moments however, the story zips along nicely, and Matthew Dudley’s many turns as Sophie’s daddy, the milkman and the postman are all very funny and add some much-needed slapstick to the proceedings. The passing of time, as Sophie and her Mummy journey from breakfast to tea, via elevenses and lunch, is also dealt with very imaginatively and encourages the audience to get involved once again.
Just like in the book though, the tiger is well and truly the star of the show. The decision to have him mime instead of talk seems a wise one and gives Abbey Norman and Jenanne Redman, as Sophie and Mummy, more time to interact with him and the audience. Dressed in a bright and bold outfit, Dudley is excellent as the tiger and rampages through the kitchen, consuming everything in his sight, including all the water from the tap, with great aplomb. The problem with all this vigour and charm though, is that everything that comes after he exits feels rather flat and staid. The strange and surreal electricity that the tiger brings with it is lost as soon as he goes offstage, plunging the characters back into the every day realities of domesticity. After daddy’s return to an empty stove, the family set off for a dinner at a café and a song about sausages and chips that goes on for far too long.
By sticking so faithfully to Kerr’s text, Wood has missed out on the chance to expand upon the strangeness of its premise. By their very nature, children are well suited to surrealism and it is a pity that Wood hasn’t taken this chance to make the tiger even more magical, and maybe even a little less friendly.
A pleasant adaptation though it is, it is hard not to leave feeling that more could’ve been done to capture the wonder of Kerr’s world, and perhaps keep the tiger as the centre of attention for a little longer.
Photo: Robert Workman : Runs until 7th September