How to Hide a Lion (New Wimbledon Theatre Studio)
A magical children’s book roars into life as a spellbinding stage show thanks to the considerable joint talents of a Pigtails Productions creative team.
How to Hide a Lion is based on the fantastic illustrated Helen Stephens book, which is warm and wonderful in itself. In the hands of adapter Peter Glanville (who also directs) the story takes on a life of its own, with a spellbinding narrative, glorious extra characters, and an entertaining message giving paws for thought for audiences aged from 1 to 101.
Launched at Polka Theatre in Wimbledon last year (Polka co-produce with the Oxford Playhouse for this tour) this is just about as good as children’s theatre gets. There is splendid interaction (you discover how large your head is as it’s measured by the performers before the show even starts and the characters escape into the audience more than once, much to the obvious delight of the children and to the secret delight of adults, who get to stroke the lion!), an easy to follow story and beautifully designed puppets.
And if all that isn’t enough renowned cabaret chansonnière and song stylist Barb Jungr has composed a collection of instantly hummable and memorable tunes that pep everything up still further and which remain in the mind long after you leave.
While How to Hide a Lion is clearly designed principally for young children it is without doubt something that can be enjoyed by all ages with its message of friendship, trust and welcoming the outsider. There are no attempts to talk down to young audiences and there is not a single second in the 50-minute production that seems dull. If you know and like the book, then the stage show will be even more of a treat.
The story itself is simple: a lion walks into well-to-do Middletown and scares the inhabitants, but is befriended by young Iris, who then has to keep it hidden from her parents and others until the lion becomes an urban hero.
Each puppet (beautifully designed by Samuel Wyer) is a mini work of art with recognisable characters lifted straight from the pages of the book as well as some hilarious additions, including the butcher, the baker and the semi-professional opera singer. There’s also a tightrope-walking burglar and those familiar with the book will be delighted to discover the plinth on which the lion hides in plain sight is also magnificently realised.
Multitalented Stephanie De Whalley and Gilbert Taylor play hat shop owners Hattie and Horace, who then skilfully tell the story using puppetry, a variety of voices and lively songs. They engage with the audience immediately and have an ease of performance that makes them all the more watchable. Their hard work seems effortless and not once do they overact or patronise, which can often be the downfall of kids’ shows.
The set (designed by Laura McEwen) is a masterpiece in itself, moving the action from the hat shop to the town square and Iris’ bedroom. Atmospheric lighting (designed by Will Evans) lends a sense of depth and colour.
The catchy musical numbers, mostly in a toe-tapping jazz style, are in a class of their own. You cannot help but enjoy the likes of Cool Cat, When You’ve Got a Friend You’re OK, Nothing Ever ‘Appens ‘Ere and Serengeti.
There are plenty of laughs to be had as young Iris finds it increasingly difficult to secrete her new friend in unlikely places: the scene in the book where the lion hides behind the bedroom door is one, and one of the uproarious added scenes features a bath followed by a discreet shadow play shower.
Thanks to the accomplished performers every single puppet character is vividly brought to life, each with their own unique character, from the yoga-loving mum to the Cockney thief. The lion itself is nothing less than adorable.
How to Hide a Lion is one of the best kids’ shows around and one can only hope that the other books in the series will follow on as sequels from this company with a flair for storytelling and a mastery of fine performance.
Touring UK until 18 November