Peacock Theatre, London WC2
Opened 25 November, 1997

The immortal words of Claymated inventor Wallace – "Well, that went as well as could be expected" – constitute a fairly accurate summation of the first stage appearance of Nick Park's now classic Plasticine characters ... accurate, that is, depending on how much or little one actually did expect.

Wallace And Gromit™ Alive On Stage In A Grand Night Out, to give it its full title, is clever, energetic, accomplished and never really successful. Writer and originator of the stage production Andrew Dawson (formerly of Mime Theatre Project, best remembered for their Thunderbirds F.A.B.) has created a gallimaufry comprising established characters from The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave, theatrical self-referentiality and a plot nicked wholesale from The Hound Of The Baskervilles.

The engine of much of the action is Wallace's latest invention, the Pantheatricon, which at the press of a remote-control button sets participants performing in any one of a number of genres, such as Thriller, Horror, Magic, Ballet or Vaudville (sic); it is basically a way of varying the action and allowing disconnected routines onto the stage to fill out 100 minutes or so.

Russ Edwards as Gromit and Angela Clerkin as "Feathers" McGraw, the villainous penguin, pull off no mean achievement in suggesting entire ranges of facial expressions with eyes only – the majority of their faces being obscured by a snout and a beak respectively. Mark Otto Hollander engages in bursts of high-speed gambolling as Shaun the lamb, and Paul Filipiak's Wallace is reunited with his great lost love Wendolene (Joyce Henderson, resplendent in a rigid polystyrene hairdo).

But the real star of the show is Tom Piper's design. The set needs of A Grand Night Out have not merely liberated a designer to cut loose, they have positively demanded an outpouring of Heath Robinson exuberance, and Piper has cheerfully risen to the challenge: the caravan-sized Pantheatricon opens out to reveal a raked inner stage, a tiring-room complete with treacherous tip-over armchair, a "Special Effects" closet (two, if you count the magician's false wardrobe on the other side) and even a James Bond-style death-dealing device in its ceiling. Inevitably, the Techno-Trousers also make an appearance.

But the plot and action themselves are not, at root, very engaging. Dawson depends to an excessive extent on the audience's prior knowledge of the Wallace and Gromit films for cues as to how they should react and what they should feel; true, the penguin is hissed whenever he/she/it waddles onstage, but this is more a perfunctory Pavlovian response than a consequence of any onstage nefariousness. The most telling moment of the press night came right at the end: when Nick Park himself and Peter Sallis (the voice of the animated Wallace) were invited up for an honorary curtain call, the applause which greeted them was noticeably longer and more genuinely fervent than that which the show proper had just received.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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