Brighton Year-Round 2020
Julia Donaldson’s sparkling verse and inspirational story are given a fabulous live adaptation, directed by Emma Kilbey, with excellent songs by Joe Stilgoe.
My daughter Thalia has recently turned three. As a theatre freak myself, I’ve been longing for the opportunity to take her to see some proper quality theatre. Will today be the day I convert her into a lifelong lover of live performance?
Zog was our go-to night-time reading for a few months last year. Thalia has long been rather adept at picking up rhymes, and would shout out the rhyming words at the end of each couplet. And Julia Donaldson is such a fantastic writer – nothing feels forced, and the stories leap in bounds from page to page. Zog might just be her best (sorry, Stick Man).
Three types of text are at play in today’s performance. The original rhyme is respectfully reproduced in its entirety, and it’s well-delivered and well-distributed amongst the cast. The girl behind me recites the entire thing along with the actors. The second type of text is the spoken lines that have been added to fill in the story and provide the audience participation moments (this is what in musicals is called “the book”). This text, perhaps inevitably, does not sparkle to quite the same extent as the rhyme, but we’ll let them off, because it’s already quite crowded in terms of quality writing around here.
Because then there are the songs. The songs are just great! There are some delicious contrapuntal melodies, some truly rousing heart-felt choruses, and somehow they achieve the difficult feat of all seeming necessary, not just included as padding. I want the album, but I can’t find it online. All credit due Joe Stilgoe, composer and librettist.
The actors are all very strong, though I’d pick out Billy Mahoney as Zog, and Tara Harris in the ensemble, as the ones whose levels of energy and radiant eyes are most keenly honed towards the younger audience members. Asha Cornelia Cluer is a somewhat more flamboyant, less strict Madam Dragon than I’d imagined from the book, which is totally fine, all a matter of interpretation of course, though I feel there was a missed opportunity with this role to create a clearer counterpoint to the other characters – she is, after all, the only adult in the room. The largest contrast is instead provided by the steady and earnest determination of Lois Glenister’s Pearl; we follow Zog’s story, but Pearl is the real hero, and the company have got this focus just right. And lastly Benedict Hastings is absolutely hilarious as Gadabout the Knight – he gets the best song, and performs it perfectly ineptly.
Let’s talk about the puppets. To my eyes, they look a bit too much like (expensive!) toys, rather than dynamic theatrical puppets. Their faces lack expression, at least from half-way back in the auditorium where we were seated. And their mode of operation – basically a stick in the back of the head, and a mouth that opens and closes – doesn’t greatly aid the actors in allowing them to properly come alive. Making them fly is achieved with a fair bit of swinging them from side to side, rather than the actors imbuing them with a life of their own. We’re essentially in the Avenue Q school of puppetry here (where the actor holding the puppet is fully visible to the audience, and represents the character as much as, or in this case more than, the puppet does), but a few more lessons wouldn’t go amiss. The best puppet on show is the frog, who unfortunately doesn’t get a lot to do.
Thalia is too young for this, at just-turned-three. It may have worked for her in a small, intimate space, where the actors could engage with her personally. She needs at least another year – and possibly more exposure to live theatre – before she can expect to get much from this. But I had a great time! This musical not only does the strong source material justice, but stands its ground as a quality work of children’s storytelling in its own right.