Edinburgh Fringe 2011
Tall Stories bring a taie of the ordinary extraordinary Mr Benn, an iconic children’s television character, who finds adventure in a fancy dress shop.
So the declaration: I grew up with Mr Benn. To this day it activates a realm of the imagination left barren by CGI. But it has taken me longer than usual to pen this review. In fact I’ve had to rewrite it a few times. This final version addresses itself to two different audiences.
As a show that is seen by an audience not familiar with the original Mr Benn children’s television series, this is a high energy, endearing, warm-hearted and very well put together and acted children’s theatre production. There’s very inventive use of props and set, and a lovely and surprising bit of puppetry. The show becomes a bit overloaded and hurried towards the end as too many stories are crammed in, but the central character of Mr Benn, an extraordinary-ordinary man who finds adventures in an unlikely place, holds the narrative together. The tunes are catchy, there’s plenty of humour and the storyline kept the children and adults full engaged and entertained throughout.
At a more than ordinary fancy dress shop, Mr Benn steps (or is enticed) into the dressing room but steps out of a different door into a new adventure each time. Each story is told and shown lovingly with some decent songs along the way.
There was an opportunity in the sea story for some blacklight theatre, as the undersea creatures looked luminously painted. But that is just one suggestion for a show that is staged with a lot of care for simple set and costumes, where less clearly turns out to be more. The staging is a big strength. It’s very good children’s musical theatre with high production values. The set is a delight and almost a character in itself.
Now, onto the audience who fondly remember Mr Benn. Here it all starts well and the revisitation of music, and even the signature costume change are touching and respectful. Unfortunately the production becomes too unhinged from the original in a way that doesn’t enhance the piece, nor do justice to the magical simplicity of 2D simply animated storytelling. Festive Road and the shop are recaptured perfectly. But an Elvis sea monster and use of a rockish pop tune do nothing for the piece as gentle story theatre. The production has departed from an essence that, as raw material and, if used wisely and with respect, could lift the show into something truly special.
Basically Tall Stories have taken too many liberties and lost some of the core in the process and it ends up feeling like a production on the periphery of something essential, precious and lost. Bringing Mr Benn to the stage in a more consistent way would have been a possible triumph, rekindling the fire of simple story, gentle image and storytelling, combined with magic that is created in the minds of children, not through over-fussiness and over-engineered trickery, but through allowing the children to co-create the story by meeting it halfway with their own active imaginations, meeting the work with their own responses as it rises up to meet them with archetype and simple images.
We have skilled singing, fun and energised story performing, we have good songs and puppetry, and a few special effects. But what we really needed here was extra-ordinary ordinary in the simplest sense. THAT is what the original Mr Benn achieved all those years ago.
That said, this piece is going to be judged on its merits as a piece of children’s theatre in it’s own right. And it’s a very good piece. Children who haven never seen Mr Benn on television will enjoy it immensely as did the seven year-old I brought along with me. So, four stars.