Southwark Playhouse, London SE1
Opened 12 December, 2008

Six words to gladden the heart: “Music and lyrics by Chris Larner”. Larner first came to notice in the 1990s, writing whimsical ditties for comedy duo The Right Size; more recently he has co-penned surreal musicals The Translucent Frogs Of Quuup and On The Island Of Aars. He has simplified lyrical matters slightly here for a family audience, but only slightly. When the duo of the title beat a retreat after a romantic misunderstanding with a broom(!), they sing, “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go this way/ The opposite direction to a bristly fiancée”. After the interval, a military sergeant bellows, “A scarecrow and his servant might give minor satisfaction/ But now we’ve got the army and some proper manly action.”
None of which is to belittle the script in which the musical numbers nestle. Simon Reade has adapted Philip Pullman’s children’s novel as a lively picaresque, and directs it in a poor-theatre style with a cast of five. Apart from some military tunics, all costumes seem to be made from rags and plastic bags, hardly more dapper than the scarecrow himself; Tom Piper’s set appears to be built from wooden pallets, from which panels flip up to reveal various bits and bobs from scene to scene. As the scarecrow who comes to life and determines to experience the world, Andrew Pepper is as urbane as a character can be with innards of straw and a pea for a brain; as Jack, the wartime orphan who enlists as “Lord Scarecrow”’s servant, Finn Hanlon is a more neutral viewpoint figure. Stephanie Street, Mark Leipacher and Oliver Senton play a basket of other characters each, with Senton in particular excelling as everything from a politically minded owl to a farmer who never finishes his, y’know...
It is refreshing to see an adaptation of this kind which doesn’t keep falling back on the storytelling ethos and putting chunks of narrative in its cast’s mouths, but is determined to show rather than tell. At the same time, there’s a kind of kiddy-friendly Brechtianism at work, as actors and audience alike implicitly acknowledge that it is just pretend, yet all pitch in with enthusiasm. The rather bland green message at the end does little to diminish the preceding hour and three-quarters of ebullient, family-friendly, non-Christmassy seasonal entertainment.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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