Charlie and Lola's Best Bestest Play

Based on the characters created by Lauren Child, adapted by Jonathan Lloyd
Hampstead Theatre

Production graphic

Adapted by Jonathan Lloyd from Lauren Child's ever-popular wonderfully witty books and the hit BBC TV series, the Charlie and Lola first ever stage show - a Polka Theatre and BBC Worldwide production presented by Watershed Productions - falls a little flat. As flat as the two-dimensional puppets of Charlie, his little sister Lola, and her imaginary friends. The audience of pre-school children was fidgety and not entirely engaged.

The two familiar half hour stories, Lola's reluctant tidying-up of her messy bedroom and Lola's going-to-sleep problems and the not so scary silhouette ogre, taken from the treasured books, were stretched beyond their capabilities. Slower than a bedtime reading, slower than the jingly television show, the magic of theatre failed to catch fire this time.

Like Lola's 'extremely best' magic tricks, on this occasion theatre's magical sleight of hand was clumsy and weak, but, unlike Lola's winsome charm in execution, which compensates for her failed attempts, the production was lame and tame. Now, Lola's logic and vivid imagination is never that, as long-suffering older brother Charlie would acknowledge.

The limbs moved, the eyes moved, but not the mouths of puppets or handlers. The figures did not speak - muffled voiceover came from a loudspeaker at the side of the stage, and this is just not good enough in the theatre today. Book and television crossover to stage needs to bring an added dimension - the breathtaking interactive immediacy of the event - not just synchronized visuals to taped voices.

In spite of the four jolly workmanlike but silent puppeteers' in denim aprons valiant efforts, what seemed to be lacking in Roman Stefanski's production was cheeky spirit and zany dash. The look was right (faithful beautiful design by Sophie Charalambous, soft lighting by Natasha Chivers), the set full of colourful nursery toys, the cardboard cutouts were exact, the TV music recognizable, but the end result was sleep-inducing inertia.

The children in the audience came to life briefly for the butterflies and bubbles that feebly invaded the auditorium, and the check for an ogre under our seats, but mostly they were passive - quiet, well-behaved children a godsend for parents. A lunchtime bedtime story, perhaps.

Of course, what the tiny tots might take away with them, as well as an interesting programme with an interview with Lauren Child, inside information from the designer of the show, some good advice, activities and drawing space, is the realization that one can do this at home. Turn a favourite book into imaginative role play. But I think most children do that anyway without much prompting.

It gives me no pleasure to say this, and I love and admire Lauren Child's clever creations, but the ice cream was the best part of this theatre visit. And the pretty set. Eye candy, but no dynamic. Or maybe, I came on the wrong day. Or maybe, I got up out of the wrong side of bed this particular morning.

Till 2 January 2010

Reviewer: Vera Liber

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