Little Howard's Big Show
Waterside Arts Centre, Sale, Manchester
Little Howard is now the star of three series of Little Howard's Big Question on BBC children's TV, but the animated six-year-old comedian and his human sidekick Big Howard—actually writer and animator Howard Read—have returned to their live theatre roots with this touring show.
The premise of this children's show (they perform more adult-orientated shows as well) is that Big Howard has been diagnosed by a doctor of being clinically unfunny. This becomes a big issue when their manager Roger, a rather rude animated pigeon from Barnsley, informs them that a government official is in the audience to check that the show is funny enough; if not, they risk being shut down or even being sent to prison.
Combining animated characters with live performers so that they really appear to be having a conversation is, of course, far more impressive on stage than on TV, and so this in itself grabs an audience's intention.
The technical trickery goes beyond this, though, with the two Howards singing duets, physical interaction between stage and screen when someone from the audience is invited to swat a spider or wipe chocolate from Little Howard's face and even a touching little hug between the Howards. At one point there is a song in which two separate screens of animation plus recorded music are synchronised perfectly with Read singing and playing an instrument, which is impressive to watch.
But while technical wizardry can grab an audience's attention, a good script is needed to keep it, and there is a great deal of wonderfully funny material, some for the kids and some to fly overy the kids' heads for the adults to catch, and even some to appeal to all. There's slapstick, wordplay, suggestive gags and a classic double act of the stupid one and the even more stupid one who thinks he's clever.
Unfortunately Waterside's system of a show around midday before the more usual 2:30 matinée didn't work well on this occasion as most booked for the latter, and in a show that depends on audience response and slow burn gags that ripple around the auditorium, the timing and the atmosphere is bound to suffer. Read is a very good performer who managed to pull it off despite the small, albeit enthusiastic, audience, but it was easy to see how much greater the impact would be with a fuller auditorium.
But while a few parts didn't work as well as they should, most of the show was hilarious, moving, clever and brilliantly entertaining. As far as I could tell, even the youngest children never got bored and were very enthusiastic with their shouted responses (especially the little girl sat behind me) and the adults were laughing delightedly too—even the one who became the villain in the show without moving from his seat due to some sly technical trickery and Terry Gillian-style animation.
Read's act seeks to appeal to both children and adults and succeeds superbly, if differently, with both. Kids will love to see some of their favourite TV characters live on stage looking pretty much the same as they do on TV—not the case with many children's TV to stage transfers—but this show is a big treat for the adults in the audience as well. Highly recommended for all ages.
Reviewer: David Chadderton