So, would you go to the theatre for the story or for the author of the story? Julia Donaldson, the writer of the nation’s best loved children’s books over the past few decades, resolves this problem for you by taking it upon herself to step onto the stage and do all her own stories herself.
Husband Malcolm, sister Mary, and friends Joanna and James are also roped into this project that at times seems like a shrewd family business enterprise and might suggest memories of Donaldson’s own childhood filled with self-made garden entertainment for all the family. (Sadly, the latter is only my own fantasy rather than being based on any hard evidence.)
I had heard it said that Donaldson was a capable animator/performer of her stories at book-reading events, but this takes it quite a few steps further. As a critic I’d be naturally inclined to question the need for a writer (and their family) to go quite so far, but Donaldson and co do rise to the task with just enough skill and aptitude. They sell out each show with relative ease of course, but I doubt that the Donaldsons are so strapped for cash that they need to be doing this at their age. The reason must be the simple pleasure of it – the thrill of the limelight, perhaps? In any case there is no added value here of, say, hearing the author’s personal recollections or having the privilege to enjoy any new writing penned especially for the occasion – it is all just about the existing books.
The show consists of five famous tales/poems – starting with The Room on the Broom and ending with everyone’s favourite: the Gruffalo. It is interesting to see what parts Julia Donaldson takes in the show (the Witch, the Mouse) making us ponder her own relationships with her characters and texts.
Overall the nimble ensemble are quite endearing in their enthusiasm and commitment and this project probably makes a bit more sense from the perspective of the book-lover than theatre-goer. The piece does bring the stories to life without any unwanted mishaps one might find in home-made settings, and gives the readers a chance to meet the author (although not in an everyday sense of the world outside of the worlds she has created).
However, from the perspective of live performance, there is much to be desired – not least for the fact that in the world of theatre, imagination is a shared domain rather than being the monopoly of the author herself.
The Gruffalo, The Witch and the Warthog with Julia Donaldson is on until 27 August 2018 at Underbelly. Click here for more details.