Theatre Review: Gruffalos, Ladybirds and Other Beasts (Julia & Malcolm Donaldson)

Be warned. Gruffalos, Ladybirds and Other Beasts is not a dramatisation of Julia Donaldson’s books. It is more or less a Mrs Donaldson’s book reading club, but with theatrical elements and Mrs Donaldson’s own personal performance, that really captures the heart of the children in the theatre.

Rating: 4/5
Photo Credit: Steve Ullathorne

Mrs Donaldson, the acclaimed children’s book author to titles of The Gruffalo, What the Ladybird Heard, Stick Man, and many others, cannot be stated as an actor-actor, but she surely knows how to perform in her own style. Directed by Peta Maurice, this one-hour interactive theatre event is produced around the nature of Mrs Donaldson.

The ensemble includes Mrs Donaldson herself, her real-life husband Malcolm Donaldson (also the guitarist in the show), her real-life sister Mary Moore, with two other actors. The whole setting is in a library where the two actors, acted as librarians, are preparing for Mrs Donaldson and her family members to come to their library and read four of her books to the children.

Along the way, instead of just reading the books, the whole ensemble reenacts the stories with the sets of the library and hidden props, as well as singing songs written by the Donaldsons.

Photo Credit: Steve Ullathorne

The stories that they have selected are Jack and the Flumflum Tree, What the Ladybird Heard, A Squash and a Squeeze, Zog, and of course at the end, The Gruffalo. I had not read Mrs Donaldson’s stories before I saw this show, but I do aware of her works and the illustrations in them.

I do try and assess the representation of each story, and each has its different style. Jack and the Flumflum Tree is performed in full theatrical form by moving the light set of the library and turning them into different settings in the story; What the Ladybird Heard is a mix of human actors and cardboards of the Lydia Monks’s illustrations in the book; and A Squash and a Squeeze is through puppetry.

But my most favourite part is Zog, done with the performers wearing character suits according to Axel Scheffler’s illustrations, with Mr Donaldson as Zog to give a funny performance. The children are also invited to become other dragons in the story, as well as the parents to interact with Zog.

Photo Credit: Steve Ullathorne

As for The Gruffalo, it is the entrance of the beast played by an actor in full character suit of the iconic image that steals the moment. However, Mrs Donaldson’s attempt on the little mouse really is the backbone of the whole part, with the kindness in her delivery that one will receive her warmth.

It is wise to frame the performance on the fence between fiction and reality. Of course, the Jockey Club Amphitheatre at Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts is crowded with children and parents mostly because of Mrs Donaldson’s appearance other than the fact that it is a theatre show. However, I salute to Mr and Mrs Donaldson for deciding to respect the form of theatre, that the children coming in to hear the stories is still having a theatrical experience.

Thus, what I see is an hour of an honest dialogue between the ensemble and the children. There is no animated acting from the performers except being with the children with genuine attitudes.

Photo Credit: Steve Ullathorne

There are pros and cons on this take though. I love the genuine take, but sometimes I do feel that the treatment of the stories as well as the performing energy are quite flat as three of the five members in the ensemble are not trained-actors.There are quite a few theatre magic with scene and costume changes, but not a lot of variety as the show goes along, maybe because it has to suit for Mrs Donaldson’s aura as a performer that it requires less spectacles than more.

I am not defying on using non-actors. I actually encourage theatre shows to try and use non-actors to clash with trained-actors for new combination of performing style. I would say this show is having a clash of that, and I welcome that. Of course, the Amphitheatre is large as well as they set up a stage which personally does produce an energy block between the performers and the audience, but still, their lucid energy still manage to capture the children’s attention.

I can see that all the children are attentively looking at the stage as the stories unfolds one after the other. The whole experience is engaging and pleasant, that after the show, everyone leaves with a delightful smile.

Production Information:

Gruffalos, Ladybirds and Other Beasts at Jockey Club Amphitheatre, HKAPA
An ABA Productions/’KidsFest!’ Hong Kong 2017 Presentation
Through 15th January 2017
Tickets: HKTicketing

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