When I first saw the ad for The Tale of Mr Tumble, part of Manchester International Festival, I was hit by a wave of cognitive dissonance: the world of high art festival crashing into the world of Cbeebies. With a nanosecond worth of thought, it was plain just how appropriate this was. After all MIF programming is all about big names, each in their chosen field: Damon Albarn, Maxine Peake, Arvo Part. And in the field of pre-school and SEN (Special Educational Needs) entertainment, names do not come any bigger than Justin Fletcher and his clown alter ego Mr Tumble. For anyone who hasn’t spent much time in the last few years hanging out with children’s TV, Justin Fletcher bestrides Cbeebies like a colossus (quite literally – there is an enormous picture of him just over the water on the BBC building in Salford). From Tikkabilla first thing in the morning, through all the many variations of Something Special, spin off Tiny Tumble, the very much acquired taste of Gigglebiz (a sketch show for the under 5s) through to the gentle anarchy of tea time Justin’s House – oh my goodness I have watched A LOT of Justin Fletcher in the last five years.
My co-critic for our afternoon trip to Mr Tumble is Katarina aged 5 and ¾. As she explained ‘I’m still a big Mr Tumble fan. Even though I am a grown up girl now.’ Pretty much what I feel about Damon Albarn…
The Opera House in Manchester is heaving with small children, not-so-small children, and their families. We are each given a free programme with activities and a poster and free scratch and sniff spotty bag (a key Mr Tumble accessory). As is appropriate with this show MIF have programmed a number of ‘relaxed’ performances specifically for children and young people who have learning disabilities or who are on the autistic spectrum. However, even on this not ‘relaxed’ performance there is a warmth and effort from all staff to make everyone welcome.
The show itself doesn’t deviate much from tried and tested formula. We start with Granddad Tumble (also Fletcher) opening the book of memories and taking us through Tumble family history, to the finding of our hero, Mr Tumble. It is all very classic storytelling stuff, but it is still gratifying to learn that Mr Tumble is a foundling; another hero, like Oliver Twist or Tracey Beaker, for all the kids who grow up without a mum and dad.
The style of production owes a lot to traditional pantomime of which Fletcher is clearly a fan and aficionado. The set is big bold shapes and colours, with simple clear animation that helps move the story along. The plot takes the young boy Tumble (played by Connor Elliott or Kai Savage, not sure who it was for our show) to a school headed by a proper panto-ish villain Miss Eerie, played with style and seriousness by Ronni Ancona. There’s a laundry scene, custard pies and plenty of slapstick and prat falls. The ensemble company of 9 work their collective socks off singing, playing, dancing and keeping the action and gags coming. I was particularly fond of dour looking Pod (Tom Mackley), Shy Shelley (Lizzie Franks) and brainy Baxter (Nicholas McLean). As in Something Special, Mr Tumble and the cast use the simple signing language Makaton throughout. I’ve learned pretty much all my sign language from Mr Tumble.
There is a message in here about everyone having something that makes them special. That seriousness and school inspections aren’t as important as being kind and having fun. Particularly given the utter rubbish coming from the Department for Education at the moment, this is an important point to get across as these young people move forwards in schools and SATs and god knows what.
But ultimately this is big entertainment for a big audience. It isn’t as political or intellectually stimulating as Bryony Kimming’s That Catherine Bennett Show, or as theatrically innovative as Catherine Wheels’ White but those are pieces for older, or smaller audiences. The Tale of Mr Tumble is done with a lot of love, effort and funding. It doesn’t feel, like some kids’ shows I’ve been to, like a cynical exercise in parting parents from their cash. It takes a lot of skill and artistry to be a successful clown, to keep hundreds of pre-schoolers, hysterical on Haribo and missed naps, entertained for 90 minutes. My favourite line in the show is when Ms Eerie accuses Mr Tumble of ‘just being funny’ he comes back with ‘it’s taken me 25 years of hard work to do this’.
And how his audience love Justin for it, genuinely love him: calls of Mr Tuuuumble at the top, singing along with him (Katarina was up and enthusiastically dancing), joining in the routines. At the end a signing choir of children from Manchester special and primary schools joins on stage. It doesn’t feel like a stuck on gesture but genuinely inclusive.
In whatever ways the programming of MIF changes after arrival of new Artistic Director John McGrath (for which much excitement), I’m sure that there will be space to explore and develop high quality work for this audience as much as any other.
Katarina’s verdict: It was a bit scary in places. Especially the lady who wanted to be serious. But I really enjoyed it particularly when they shot the sparkles and the golden streamers at us at the end. 8/10 (10/10 for interval ice cream.)