Just So

Music by George Stiles, book and lyrics by Anthony Drewe, inspired by the Just So Stories of Rudyard Kipling
Pulling Focus Ltd by arrangement with Cameron Mackintosh Ltd
Tabard Theatre, Chiswick
(2010)

Just So production photo

This vibrant and engaging musical opens well with an intriguing jungle gym-based set with a map of Africa (loosely) decorating the floor. The lighting doesn't always find the actor's faces and one suspects that it's not always a deliberate effect but everyone carries on with aplomb.

The music is rousing and energetic, the numbers are very well choreographed for a tight stage and for the most part the actors deliver the witty and charming lyrics of Anthony Drewe at just the right pitch for the audience to appreciate the cleverness of a line, whilst immersing themselves in the story at the same time.

Rudyard Kipling's well loved children's stories are here being brought to life by the cast and crew of the Tabard theatre over the Christmas run and the messages are particularly heart warming. I especially enjoyed the transitions made by each character over the course of the evening from run-of-the mill stereotypes to colourful and brave individuals.

Special mention might go to any one of the eleven strong cast but The Eldest Magician played by Ian Knauer is the Captain who lovingly and firmly leads his characters through the adventures and storms on stage with touching care and rather a nice singing voice too.

Just So is mostly silly and funny in turn all the way through, suitable for children and adults, the costumes and props are inventive and show a flair and imagination that can interest far more than traditional more literal costumes might.

There are moments when the action sags in overly played 'meaningful' bits but they are mostly not too saccharine. The director, Andrew Keates, whose staging is simple but not lazy and moves his cast around the space with confidence, when necessary and keeps them still when not.

The lighting improves through the play and the concept is good, the scene changes are almost entirely denoted by lights tinting from blue to green to yellow and it is an effective, clear way of delineating the action.

Magnus Gilljam is a masterful musical director; the music swells and falls throughout the show with barely a moment's pause, at once background and then immediately swelling to sentimental crescendos. Yet we are hardly ever aware of the background score, it is subtle enough to fade into our subconscious, while the musical numbers are so rhythmic and catchy that the entire audience seemed to be tapping their feet at some point.

On the subject of tapping, it was such a treat to see some good old fashioned tap numbers by the girls, well done Keates! More of this please!

The musical is extremely well fleshed out in terms of characterisation and should not be brushed over as children's theatre. The friendship between the Kolokolo Bird (played with Scottish arch eyebrows and considerable humour and soul by Lisa Baird) and a fresh faced young Lee Greenaway as the Elephant Child was truthful and occasionally a little painful. And so were the other's relationships as they journeyed up the Limpopo and towards a deeper understanding and compassion for their fellow creatures.

All in all, aside from the cool temperatures that couldn't be kept out of the theatre (it's above a pub and the doors aren't really kept closed beforehand, perhaps due to Health and Safety) and the occasional edge of a costume glimpsed offstage, this festive treat is a surprisingly sharp, very sweet and wholesome night out for young and old.

"Just So" is playing at the Tabard Theatre from 1st December 2010 until 9th January 2011

Reviewer: Lizzie Singh