’Tis the season for baddies, goodies, magic, adventure, fantasy, mythical creatures, song and dance … DumbWise and Red Ladder’s musical version of Terry Jones’s children’s book has them all, minus a chorus of “he’s behind you” but plus a whole host of narrative ingredients. Few family Christmas shows are quite so packed with plot.
Our mouthful of a hero is Nicobobinus (Nico for short), a Venetian boy who can do anything – or at least so his best mate Rosie believes. These abilities are put to the test when his arm is turned to gold and he and Rosie set out on a quest to find the cure, following in the good old tradition of the magical voyage. Jones’s plot, though, is a whole lot more meandering than your average fairytale. Along the way, Nico and Rosie encounter pirates, gardeners, monks, kings, dragons, magical ships, moving mountains – the list goes on.
As in the fictional worlds of Roald Dahl, the adults we encounter are invariably greedy and vile, while it’s the kids who have the last laugh. From kidnapping pirates to hypocritical monks, everyone wants their share of Nicobobinus’s valuable limb, the covetous glint in their eyes rivalling its golden glimmer. These baddies are most definitely bad, but in a fashion that seems much closer to our own greed-led world than to that of cackling, crackpot villains. Think fantasy meets social critique.
The counterpoint to these grasping grown-ups is found in the friendship between Nicobobinus and Rosie, which is equal, guileless and loyal – and, of course, wins out in the end. Rosie (full of playful energy in Samantha Sutherland’s performance) is a gift of a female protagonist, given most of the guts and nearly all of the mischief in the pairing, while Nico (an equally enthusiastic Max Runham) cheerfully bounds headlong into the madcap adventures she sets them off on. And brilliantly, they both rescue each other; there are no damsels in distress here.
There is, however, almost every other fairytale element you can think of. While the page might be able to accommodate these many jostling characters, on stage it all feels a bit too busy, with a relentless “and then, and then” quality to the racing narrative. The songs inserted by Eilidh deBonnaire and performed by the cast of actor musicians, though often charming, only add to the cacophony.
If John Ward’s adaptation hesitates to bring out the scissors, it does capture something of the storybook in bringing Jones’s novel to the stage. The show is at its best when fiddling with the mechanics of storytelling, its performers doubling up as both narrators and characters. At moments, it is deliciously playful in its sly acknowledgement of the narrative tradition it slots into, offering plenty of arch looks to the audience and implicitly asking even the youngest of its viewers to think about how we share stories.
Kate Unwin’s simple but flexible set, meanwhile, contributes to the improvisatory feel of the performance, quickly being adapted – like the ragtag contents of a dressing-up box – for new uses in the twisting and turning narrative. Little is added, though, by ropey projections, which offer visual elaboration of what could more effectively be left to the imagination. Again, DumbWise and Red Ladder’s show suffers from a surfeit. And it’s here, despite its gleeful subversion of many tired tropes, that Nicobobinus might learn something from the fairytales it borrows from: sometimes simple is best.